Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Hatfields and the McCoys, by Otis K. Rice (audiobook narrated by Dick Hill)

Admittedly, my only prior knowledge of the infamous feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys came from popular culture (does anyone remember that Bugs Bunny episode? Anyone?) so I guess it was good to hear the facts behind the feud. And this book was...very factual. Okay, it was dry and dull. I don't know, I guess I was just expecting something more exciting or engaging. Dick Hill did his best to bring life to the audiobook and his narration was very good, but the source material made it feel like a lecture series. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but I think of the Hatfields and the McCoys as some of the most colourful characters in American history so I suppose I was expecting a more colourful telling of their tale. I haven't read the print edition, though, and I've heard that it includes lots of illustrations that add to the story. This might be a book best enjoyed by true history buffs or people trying to sort out the fact from the fiction, as opposed to those--like myself--who were hoping for a more exciting version of the famous events (of which there is no shortage, Bugs Bunny aside).


Today is the last day of the September giveaway, How to Raise a Good Kid, by Starbuck O'Dwyer. Click the link below (or hit the "September Giveaway" tab above) to enter. Hurry, the giveaway ends in a few hours!

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

UPDATE: Life of Pi, by Yann Martel...Now a MOVIE!

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Are you excited about the upcoming movie version of Life of Pi? I admit that the trailer looks gorgeous (scroll down to watch it) although for some reason I was sure the movie had been made years ago, shortly after the book came out. I guess it goes to show how little I keep up to date with movie releases these days. Nonetheless, I'm pretty excited about this one. I've read the book and listened to the audiobook and I liked them both (liked, but didn't love) but I think the real power of this story could be in the visual representation that a movie allows. To see that tiger, to hear it roar, it's pretty powerful stuff. What do you think? Will you be going to see Ang Lee's interpretation of Yann Martel's novel?

Keep reading to see my original review of the book (and audiobook) and to watch the theatrical trailer...

Monday, September 24, 2012

She's Come Undone, by Wally Lamb

Remember this book? If you were alive in the 90's you probably had somebody insist that you just "had to read it." And that person was probably Oprah. One of the first books selected for Oprah's Book Club, She's Come Undone was an instant bestseller when it was first published in 1992 and rocketed Wally Lamb to literary stardom. Now it's been re-released as a 20th Anniversary Edition and Net Galley has offered it to book bloggers for review. So is it as good now as it was twenty years ago? The short answer is yes. The long answer is that it was terrible then and it is still equally terrible today.

She's Come Undone was one of the first fiction books I remember reading simply because of the hype. It wasn't recommended by a friend or a teacher. It wasn't by a famous dead author. I didn't borrow it from my sister. I was in high school at the time and I went out and bought this novel simply because everyone (and by "everyone" I mean Oprah Winfrey) was talking about how great it was. It was also one of the first books I remember reading and then afterwards thinking, "I've been had." 

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Boy in the Snow: An Edie Kiglatuk Mystery, by M.J. McGrath

M.J. McGrath's northern mystery, The Boy in the Snow, is one of those books that is so well written it would still be wonderful if it were set somewhere other than Alaska, but I can't imagine it being set anywhere else. The landscape, the culture and the people of Alaska are so much a part of the story that they're really the main character. It's a book that taught as much as it entertained. I learned about Arctic politics, religion, geography and history, not to mention the history of the Iditarod. 
Iditarod team
When half-Inuit Edie Kiglatuk travels to Wasilla, Alaska, to help her ex-husband Sammy with the Iditarod, she considers herself going "to the south." Edie is from Ellesmere Island, one of the northernmost communities in the world, and finds the ways of the Anchorage area people to be foreign and "un-northern." They eat MacDonald's instead of seal meat. They call snowmobiles "snow machines." They warn her against spending time on "Old Believer" land, a reference to an ancient Russian Orthodox sect. 

Battle of the Dinosaur Bones: Othniel Charles Marsh vs Edward Drinker Cope, by Rebecca L. Johnson

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The infamous "Bone Wars" refers to the period in American history from the 1870's through to the 1890's when two paleontologists, Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope, engaged in a bitter rivalry to discover the most dinosaur fossils (each working at the expense of the other, often using bribery and theft) and become the nation's leading paleontologist. The rivalry was dramatic, bitter and legendary. It also led to some of the most important discoveries about dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures.

Rebecca L. Johnson's new book, The Battle of the Dinosaur Bones, presents the Marsh-Cope feud in an easy to follow, well-illustrated book that would be appropriate for children (and adults) of all ages. As someone who lives with an armchair paleontologist and is surrounded by dozens of dinosaur books all the time, I must say I LOVED this book. I don't find dinosaurs quite as intrinsically interesting as my partner Mike does, but I've always been completely fascinated with the characters of Marsh and Cope. I love how their rivalry partially started when Cope incorrectly assembled the fossil remains of the Elasmosaurus and put its head on the end of its tail instead of its neck (see below). Marsh saw it and ridiculed his colleague ruthlessly, sparking a professional animosity between the two men that reminds me of the rivalry between Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla.

May We Be Forgiven, by A.M. Homes

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I know I've said this about a million times on this blog, but one of my favourite things about being a book blogger is that I am introduced to all kinds of books and authors who might not otherwise been on my radar. I enter lots of giveaways, I request advanced reading copies or digital galleys of books to review, or I'm sent copies by authors or publishers. More often than not, it's an author I haven't read before and I get a chance to discover them for the first time. A lot of times, it's an author who already has a big fan base even if they're new to me. 

Such was the case with A.M. Homes. The reviews of her books on Goodreads are filled with people gushing about how she's their favourite writer, how they love her black humour, how they laughed out loud when reading this book. That seemed like a big claim to me since this book starts out with a horrible violent tragedy that leaves two kids orphaned and being raised by their  uncle, Harold. But it is funny. Sort of. Eventually.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Zombie, by J.R. Angelella

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Such a clever premise! Fourteen-year-old Jeremy Barker is obsessed with zombies. Or rather, zombie movies. He uses his favourites--like Zombieland, 28 Days Later, Night of the the Living Dead and Planet Terror--as the basis of his own personal survival code. Because, as he puts it, "rules are made to be broken but codes are meant to be kept." He tries to manoeuvre through his days at an all-boys Catholic school using his code with tips like, "Don't make eye contact" when approached by bullies or--even scarier--girls. His father only encourages him, running through practice scenarios like, "What would you do if there were zombies in math class?" on the way to school. And it would have been all innocent fun if it weren't for the fact that his dad actually turns out to be more than a little unhinged. Zombie takes some dark turns and the ongoing conceit of the "zombie survival guide" serves to not only provide a framework for a story that is at times very funny and at other times horribly violent, it also serves as a reminder of just how young and vulnerable the main character is. He has to deal with some very real horror with only his fantasy world of zombie horror movies to protect him. It's a book that is both clever and captivating.

GIVEAWAY: How to Raise a Good Kid, by Starbuck O'Dwyer

The September Giveaway is now closed.

Congratulations to....

Rachel M!

You'll be receiving your copy of How to Raise a Good Kid by Starbuck O'Dwyer soon!

To everyone else who entered, thank-you and keep checking back for info on the October giveaway, Imperfect Bliss by Susan Fales-Hill!

September Giveaway: How to Raise a Good Kid, by Starbuck O'Dwyer
I'm giving away one new paperback copy of Starbuck O'Dwyer's fantastic childhood memoir, How to Raise a Good Kid. It's essentially a love letter to his parents, especially his dad, and it's pretty fantastic. I never would have given away my own copy of the book, but the author was nice enough to send me a second copy and permission to give it away on my blog. Thanks, Starbuck! 

You can enter using the widget below and then scroll down for my original review. Good luck!
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My Original Review:

Starbuck O'Dwyer's childhood memoir, How to Raise a Good Kid, is so good that I would believe that he is secretly a celebrity memoir ghost writer (Hello? Mindy Kaling? Do you know anything about this?). It would fit nicely with his already impressive list of jobs, including lawyer, radio host, novelist (I've heard great things about Red Meat Cures Cancer) and graduate from every Ivy League school ever. Of course, if his memoir is to be believed, having multiple jobs may be genetic since his father was apparently a military advisor, a deacon, a business owner and a university alumni representative who interviewed screened prospective students. That seems like a lot of things. Through it all, though, his dad's main job was as awesome super dad who, along with his mom, taught young Starbuck invaluable life lessons that still resound today.

There are a few things about this collection of childhood stories that I did find a bit confusing, however. For one, the names. Apart from having a childhood filled with a collection of the most unlikely-named friends and neighbours (the minister's name is Rev. Show Altar?) Starbuck's own very unusual name is never once mentioned in the book. I assumed it was a pseudonym, but his website and online presence seems to insist it is not. Still, there is not a single story about growing up with a strange first name, the thought process behind his parents' decision to give him such a moniker, or even a single instance of someone calling him by that or any other first name. In all of the stories his parents call him "son" or "dear" and his peers call him "O'Dwyer." I suspect this means that he was never called "Starbuck" as a child but something much more ordinary, like Jeff. Still, it's strange he wouldn't mention that, considering it is a memoir about his childhood. 

UPDATE: From a message from Starbuck O'Dwyer on my LibraryThing page:

To answer your questions and put an end to any and all mysteries, Starbuck is my given middle name and was my paternal grandmother's maiden name. The family was a Nantucket whaling family from way back and, to the extent you have any interest, I recommend a book called Three Bricks for Three Brothers about the Starbuck family patriarch, Joseph Starbuck, who was quite an interesting fellow.  
There's also the matter of the elusive sister. In some stories his sister Pam factors in heavily, like on family road trips or a story about bullies and childhood snow fort building. Yet in others she is conspicuously absent, like in the story about his parents going to Germany for a month and leaving him with the neighbours. Where was his sister? Or the story about waiting for his mom to come home from work (she was a teacher, so it wouldn't have normally been a long wait from when he came home from school to when she did) only to panic when she didn't return until five o'clock. Her explanation was that she thought she told him she would be delayed but "I guess I only told your sister." But where was his sister? Why didn't she explain their mom's delay? Why was young "Son O'Dwyer" home alone when he clearly had a sibling?

UPDATE: From same message from Starbuck:

As for my sister, Pam, she is alive and well. The summer my parents went to Germany and I ended up at the "Brennan's" - she was safely ensconsed at a sleepaway camp no doubt roasting marshmellows, singing songs around the campfire and having a grand old time while I was hanging paper towels to dry and tryin! g to convince my host family that the US only has 50 states ;)  
These sort of questions would probably not even come up if I had read the book as a collection of unconnected stories that could be picked up and read randomly, one chapter here and there, instead of as a cover-to-cover read in two or three sittings. 

Still, it's MUCH better than a lot of celebrity memoirs I've read (which I recently realized is a pretty large group...when did I become the person who reads so many celebrity memoirs?) so maybe Starbuck O'Dwyer SHOULD consider a career as a professional ghostwriter. And I'm definitely going to track down a copy of Red Meat Cures Cancer. Oh, and the author sent me a copy of his other book, Goliath Gets Up (THANK-YOU!!) so I can't wait to read that too.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

A Working Theory of Love, by Scott Hutchins

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Scott Hutchins' debut novel starts out with elements of the absurd but he tells it without blinking, with such a steady tone and an even hand that (eventually) drew me in. Neill Bassett is a thirty-something divorced man living in San Francisco who could best be described as listless and probably a little depressed. His job is to help develop a natural sounding language software to allow a semi-sentient computer to converse with humans, using the extensive diaries of his late father as a teaching tool. Thus, Neill converses with a computer that uses the words of his dead father to answer back to him (thus the element of absurdity). But Hutchins doesn't treat this so much as an exercise in absurdity (as, say, Douglas Addams would) as a semi-realistic metaphor. Neill has trouble connecting with real humans and even with himself, but his understanding of humanity comes from a computer. Neill's father wasn't able to sort out his own emotional life (he committed suicide) but is, in a way, able to connect with his son posthumously through his diaries (albeit in a computer voice). The logistics of this sort of language software research probably isn't very realistic, but the important story is that of the humans not the technology. 

I loved this book, but for a lot of the same reasons that other people didn't like it, so I feel I should explain. The character of Neill is a little hard to connect to. He's mopey, he's passive, he's not fully engaged in the world. But that's the point. It's his journey that is the real story. In tone, it reminded me a little bit of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, even though I despised that book. I guess it's just a matter of taste. While I found the characters in Franzen's (incredibly popular) novel so unlikable that I couldn't enjoy his literary efforts, there was something in Hutchins' melancholic characters that resonated with me. It's a book that I was glad I stuck with.

Black Fridays, by Michael Sears

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Jason Stafford was a hotshot Wall Street trader with a beautiful wife (even if she was an alcoholic) a young son (even if he never saw him) and millions of dollars to burn (even if some of it was earned through fraudulent trades). When his "accounting errors" finally caught up to him, Jason spent two years in prison while his complicit bosses retired with multi-million dollar severance packages. Now Jason is out of prison and trying to start his life again, starting with reconnecting with his son. But when a securities firm asks Jason to go over the accounts of one of their traders--one who was recently killed in a boating accident and is about to be investigated posthumously--Jason gets more than he bargained for. Soon he discovers problems in the books that could get people killed.

Black Fridays is promoted as a "thriller" but I'm glad I didn't get too hung up on that label. As some of you know, I have a mental block with that genre. I just glaze over whenever I see buzzwords like "international intrigue" or "CIA espionage." Even with movies, I fall asleep during car chases. But Black Fridays is different. It starts with just one man and his story and makes me care about him, so I'm willing to follow the character through all manner of car chases (figuratively). It's a character driven thriller, I guess.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Pray the Gay Away: The Extraordinary Lives of Bible Belt Gays, by Bernadette Barton

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I think anyone who lives in a predominantly Christian country and cares about the LGBTQ community can relate to many elements of Bernadette Barton's book Pray the Gay Away: The Extraordinary Lives of Bible Belt Gays, in that we have some experience with homophobia and some of that homophobia is religious-based, often from Christian groups. Certainly not all homophobes are Christian and not all Christians are homophobic, but in the Venn diagram of Christianity and homophobia there's certainly some overlap. And that overlap is probably greatest in certain parts of the Southern and MidWestern United States known as the Bible Belt. 

The Secret Keeper, by Kate Morton

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The opening chapter of Kate Morton's novel, The Secret Keeper, has such an explosive ending that I immediately went back and re-read the whole chapter to see if I had missed any clues as to what had just happened. The year is 1961 in rural England and teenaged Laurel is debating (which, for some reason, is written as "de-bating" in this novel, but maybe that was just in my advanced copy) leaving home to run off with her boyfriend Billy but she doesn't want to miss her baby brother's second birthday. While she's lurking in a treehouse weighing her options, she witnesses her mother commit a violent crime that will surely affect the rest of their lives (and most definitely the rest of the novel). After rereading Chapter One, I realized I had nowhere to go but forward if I was going to get answers about what I had just read. And race forward I did. I could barely put the book down! The story meanders back and forth from modern day, the early 1960's and before and during World War II. It's sort of like Tigers in Red Weather set in the Cotswolds (for those of you who have read my review of Liza Klaussmann's debut novel, you know that is high praise indeed).

Monday, September 10, 2012

Killing the Emperors: A Robert Amiss/Baronness Jack Troutback Mystery, by Ruth Dudley Edwards

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It's not often that a book has me running to Wikipedia as often of as Ruth Dudley Edwards' modern art themed mystery, Killing the Emperors. Baroness Ida "Jack" Troutbeck is the matron of the fictional Cambridge college of St. Martha's and is a biting critic of modern conceptional art. Apart from a few key characters, all of the artists and art world elites mentioned in the book are real people, and Ruth Dudley Edwards (in the form of her heroine) has MUCH to say about all of them. She lampoons the likes of Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, heroes in the Young British Artist movement, as well as art critics, collectors and curators like Nicholas Serota and Charles Saatchi. Of course, with all of her extensive criticism of modern art in Britain, the result for me was a huge increase in my interest in these artists. I found myself stopping every few minutes to look up Damien Hirst's shark exhibit or Tracey Emin's dirty bed. It's not that it's necessary in order to enjoy the book--the details of all of the art involved is explained quite fully by the characters, albeit with a highly critical bent--it's just that I found it all so fascinating. I'm sure Edwards had the opposite intent, but I found myself a much bigger fan of modern British conceptual art now than I was before I read the book!

But someone in Killing the Emperors doesn't see it that way. Someone is systematically snatching up elites in the British art world--including our feisty, opinionated, bisexual heroine Jack--and is threatening to kill them off one by one. Jack's friends (including Robert Amiss, who was apparently the star of this series before it got hijacked by the irrepressible and downright addicting Lady Jack) must try to solve the crime and find the missing elites before time is up.

Hit the jump for a look at Damien's shark and Tracey's bed...

Mad Women: The Other Side of Life on Madison Avenue in the '60s and Beyond, by Jane Maas (audiobook narrated by Coleen Marlo)

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Jane Maas' memoir of life as a woman in an advertising agency in the 1960's is targeted at fans of the TV show Mad Men, but I was more drawn to it because of how much I enjoyed Janet Groth's autobiography The Receptionist, about her career at The New Yorker in that same time period. I don't watch a lot of television and I've never been that interested in Mad Men. But I loved this book (watching the TV show is in no way a prerequisite, since it's an autobiography and doesn't really have much to do with the fictional world created on the show). I enjoyed hearing about how women like Jane Maas carved out a place for themselves in the world of advertising at a time when women were only just beginning to do so. There were accounts that were "women's accounts," for instance, and female employees would rarely be involved in high profile campaigns like those for liquor, cars or luxury items. Most women worked on accounts for toilet bowl cleaners and soap.

The audio narration is

Lip Service, by M.J. Rose

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M.J. Rose's Lip Service was first published in 1998 and has been recently republished by Atria. Because women's erotic fiction has become so popular and mainstream lately (*ahem* thank-you, Fifty Shades of Grey) it was hard not to go into this book with expectations and comparisons in mind. I expected to dive right into lots of kinky sex with a thin plot but that's not exactly what this book is. First of all, the "kinky sex" is not so much centre stage as it is wrapped in layers and layers of separation. The main character is only having the "kinky sex" over the phone. With strangers. As a phone sex operator. Actually, no, a phone sex therapist. So as the book begins, she's hardly getting tied up and spanked. But even through all those layers of separation, working out sexual fantasies over the phone proves to be very challenging for Julia Sterling's sense of self. You could say it causes her to pull back her own layers (hey, symbolism!).

I was very impressed with this book. It's erotic and sensual in places but it doesn't sacrifice plot or character development. Julia Sterling is a real person who has real reactions. She certainly doesn't react or behave the way I would in similar situations (then again, maybe I couldn't picture myself being in some of these situations) but I believe her as a character and I found myself invested in her self-discovery.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Fifty Shades of Grey, by E.L. James

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Well, after all the hype I figured I had to at least read it for myself. First off, let me say that I had no interest in reading this book simply so I could decry it as poorly written or not as good as (insert whatever comparison here). I really hoped that I would like it. I really wanted to give it the benefit of the doubt. I knew that it had taken the world by storm and started a frenzied mainstreaming of erotica for women, and for that I was willing to give it a chance. After all, it's a good thing that women are embracing their sexual desires in print, isn't it? Yes, sure. Or something. 

Besides, I had already read a parody (and listened to the audiobook), Fifty Shames of Earl Grey, and it was an absolute delight. It was silly and just sexy enough that I figured the real book would be, well, let's just say intriguing.

The weird thing, though? I liked the parody better.

The True Story of Catch-22: The Real Men and Missions of Joseph Heller's 340th Bomb Group in World War II, by Patricia Chapman Meder

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Joseph Heller's 1961 novel Catch-22 is one of those books that so many people feel a connection to. It's not just a World War II novel and a darn funny book (which isn't an easy combination to accomplish), it's become a symbol of the absurd, a catchphrase to describe ludicrously impossible situations and bureaucracy. But according to Patricia Chapman Meder's new book, The True Story of Catch-22, there are some people who feel a lot more connected to the book than the rest of us: the real soldiers from Joseph Heller's WWII 340th Bomb Group whom she believes were the direct inspiration for the characters in the book. 

The daughter of Colonel Willis Chapman--whom she claims is the real life Colonel Cathcart--Patricia Chapman Meder grew up hearing stories of the war, including the missions that made it into Heller's novel. By relying on first-hand interviews and records of flight missions from members of Heller's (and her father's) bomb group, she is able to piece together who each of the characters may have been based on, as well as the real-life details of many of the missions in the novel. It is clearly a labour of love for Chapman Meder and it's obvious this book has been years in the making. It's a fascinating read for any fan of Catch-22 or for anyone interested in the history of bombardiers during the Second World War. 

If I had a criticism it's that

A Fistful of Collars: A Chet and Bernie Mystery, by Spencer Quinn

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I almost didn't request this book but I'm so glad I did! I received it from Simon & Schuster (an Atria Galley Alley grab, I believe) and I was a little worried because if I didn't like it I'd feel obligated to finish it so I could write a review. When I saw the description--a detective story told from the point of view of the P.I.'s dog--I got a little worried. I've tried reading those "non-traditional narrator" cozy mysteries before and I haven't had good experiences. Whether it's a dog, a cat or a ghost, the novelty tends to wear off pretty fast, usually by the end of the second chapter. But this one was fantastic! I loved it from the first page to the last. I guess it just goes to show that sometimes it pays to take a chance on something new!

The canine in question is Chet, the companion of Bernie the private eye, and he is a delightful narrator. I particularly loved that, though he's observant and intelligent, he's still a dog. He tries to listen carefully to conversations but gets distracted if people are eating because he's waiting for food to fall. The offering of chew toys is enough to make him think that someone is not only a fantastic person but also very good at their job. And no matter the situation, he thinks that Bernie is the smartest, best-looking and most likeable person in the room.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Relish: My Life in the Kitchen, by Lucy Knisley

Lucy Knisley's graphic (as in "illustrated" not as in "explicit") food memoir is Persepolis meets The Food Network. The self-professed daughter of two foodies, Ms. Knisley grew up in the kitchens of New York--at home, in restaurants and in gourmet shops--as her extended family raised her, one flavour at a time. The charming illustrations reflect her childhood memories perfectly, like comic strips in the Sunday paper filled with tales of roasted lamb and profiteroles. But they are also used to describe some very sophisticated recipes (I didn't even know I could make my own chai tea from scratch!) in a way that is fun and accessible. It's the perfect medium to describe how Lucy Knisley feels about food--it's filled with childhood nostalgia but also with sophisticated gourmet wonder.

Relish: My Life in the Kitchen does not so much make me think of my own childhood (I mean, I definitely have food memories--who doesn't?) as it does make me think of the childhood I'm providing to my daughter. It makes me want to expand my child's food experience and sense of culinary wonder.