Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Published August 2011 in hardcover, June 2012 in trade paperback
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher in exchange for this review

Thirty years in the future all of our worst fears have come true - this year's drought has stretched on for decades, gas is scarce and cities are crumbling under the weight of an influx of people who have moved in from the small towns and suburbs. The one place every wants to be is the OASIS, a computer simulated universe designed by the Howard Hughes-like James Halliday.

When Halliday dies, his will puts the world into a frenzy. Somewhere in the OASIS, among its hundreds of sectors and thousands of planets, Halliday has hidden an egg. The person who finds the egg will inherit Halliday's billions and control of the OASIS. The egg can only be found after three keys are found and three gates entered and beaten. Five years later, when no one has even discovered the first key, most of the world has given up. But for "gunters" (egg hunters) like Wade Watts, the search is everything. An orphan, Wade lives with an aunt who only puts up with him for the extra food she can get. With no friends outside of the OASIS and few inside, the only thing Wade really has going for him to an incredible memory and mad gaming skills.

When Wade discovers the first puzzle and the first key, his avatar draws the attention of the world, including the attentions of a giant corporation intent on winning the egg and ready to do anything to do it. To beat them, Wade is going to have to draw on everything he has learned about Halliday's passion - the pop culture of the 1980's and learn to trust and depend on others.

The Barnes & Noble overview calls this book "wildly original." That it is; I've never read anything like it. It also says Ready Player One is "stuffed with irresistible nostalgia." It certainly is filled with nostalgia; unfortunately, I had no problem resisting the nonstop references to the movies, music and games of the 1980's.

Since almost all of the action takes place in the OASIS, Wade is almost the only human we meet until very nearly the end of the book. With a story filled with nothing but avatars, Cline was left himself with very little to develop in his characters and it made them difficult for me to connect with them. While there were some things I wasn't expecting, there were no surprises for me which was a big disappointment.

At 100 pages, I was ready to make this my second DNF (did not finish) in a month but so many people love it, I plugged along thinking I would soon come to the point where the book would grab me. It never did. I will, however, pass this one along to Mini-him who is a gaming nerd. Although he wasn't born until almost the end of the decade this book highlights, the intricacies of the game play will certainly appeal to him more than it did to me.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Baker's Daughter by Sarah McCoy

The Baker's Daughter by Sarah McCoy
Published January 2012 in hardcover, August 2012 in paperback by Broadway
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher and TLC Book Tours in consideration for this review

Publisher's Synopsis:

In 1945, Elsie Schmidt is a naive teenager, as eager for her first sip of champagne as she is for her first kiss. She and her family have been protected from the worst of the terror and desperation overtaking her country by a high-ranking Nazi who wishes to marry her. So when an escaped Jewish boy arrives on Elsie’s doorstep in the dead of night on Christmas Eve, Elsie understands that opening the door would put all she loves in danger.

Sixty years later, in El Paso, Texas, Reba Adams is trying to file a feel-good Christmas piece for the local magazine. Reba is perpetually on the run from memories of a turbulent childhood, but she’s been in El Paso long enough to get a full-time job and a fiancĂ©, Riki Chavez. Riki, an agent with the U.S. Border Patrol, finds comfort in strict rules and regulations, whereas Reba feels that lines are often blurred.

Reba’s latest assignment has brought her to the shop of an elderly baker across town. The interview should take a few hours at most, but the owner of Elsie’s German Bakery is no easy subject. Reba finds herself returning to the bakery again and again, anxious to find the heart of the story. For Elsie, Reba’s questions are a stinging reminder of darker times: her life in Germany during that last bleak year of WWII. And as Elsie, Reba, and Riki’s lives become more intertwined, all are forced to confront the uncomfortable truths of the past and seek out the courage to forgive.

My Thoughts: 

I was really drawn to Elsie's story and was much more invested in her life in Germany. From the beginning of the book, I was struck by McCoy's original take on World War II. Not often do we find our protagonist on the side of "the bad guy." While Elsie's opinions certainly grow and change throughout the book and the Nazi's are clearly in the wrong, McCoy does an excellent job of illustrating, both in the Elsie's story and in Riki's, that things are more often grey than black and white. 

Alternating chapters between the past and present, McCoy draws her readers through The Baker's Daughter, although for me it was much more to get to Elsie and the tension that just did not let up. Writers often put their characters into dangerous situations only to pull them back just in time. McCoy offers a much more realistic approach. Like most Germans, the Schmidt's suffer, with very different resulting opinions about what has happened to them.

McCoy contrasts the Nazi's treatment of Jews with the United State's treatment of illegal immigrants through Riki's part of the story. It's an interesting comparison, although it got lost somewhat with so many plot lines involved. McCoy has tried to cover a lot of ground here and I would have preferred to focus more on Reba's family and how that affected her relationships. 

Would I recommend this book? Absolutely, it is a lovely book about women who must find their inner strength under very different but very difficult circumstances. It would make terrific book club selection with much to discuss. McCoy has written a book that is thought provoking on many levels.
"We all tell little lies about ourselves, our pasts, our presents. We think some of them are minuscule, unimportant, and others, large and incriminating. But they are the same. Only God has enough of the story to judge our souls." 

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for including me in this tour. For other opinions about this book, check out the full tour. This is Sarah McCoy's second novel. To learn more about McCoy and her writing, visit her website, her blog, or her Facebook page, or chat with her on Twitter. My how being an author has changed in the past ten years - can you imagine trying to find the time to write, tour to promote your work, have a family and keep up all of this internet presence? Fortunately, McCoy seems to have figured it out; she is currently working on her third novel.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Sunday Salon - August 26

Ah, Sunday - I never know what to make of you. I don't have to work and I generally try not to clean on Sunday but you mean I have to go back to work tomorrow. I shall endeavor to make the best of you.

The Big Guy raced through The Lighthouse Road last week. Like me, he liked it (although maybe not as much as Safe From The Sea). He liked the movement in time and thought Geye did a great job with a work of strictly historical fiction. Now, like Safe From The Sea, this one will now make its way out into the world - first stop, my parents. The Big Guy isn't necessarily what I would call "a reader"  (he can't sit still long enough most of the time) but he does love books. He will pick up and put down books on a whim and entirely reads what ever appeals at the moment. Sometimes that means he's grabbing books from my shelves instead of his nightstand - case in point, he recently picked up Julian Barnes' The Sense of An Ending. I haven't gotten to it yet but if he delivers it back to me in the same shape as he did The Lighthouse Road, he is in big trouble!

I came home from work to find Joanne Harris' Peaches for Father Francis in my mailbox the other day. What a nice surprise - I've really enjoyed the books I've read by her and this was a complete surprise. And it will fit in perfectly with my plans for Fall Feasting reading coming up in October and November again.

Late last night I completed my eighth pin for the Pin It and Do It challenge. On a whim, I decided to make granola at 11:30 p.m. - given that it needs to bake for an hour, you can imagine how late I went to bed!
It wasn't the recipe I had initially pinned but it seems to be one that we will all like and it was one for which I had all of the ingredients on hand. Since I'm actually typing this up while I'm waiting for it to finish cooking, I can't give you a verdict on it yet. But I'm already imagining the variations on the basic recipe I can make: different fruit, different nuts, a batch with coconut for those in my family who like it, different grains. The recipe call for rolled oats but I used half rolled oats and half rolled barley. If we like it, I'm going to have to work in bigger batches; the recipe I used only makes enough granola for each of us to have about one bowl.

I neglected to mention, when I reviewed it, that Sea Escape by Lynn Griffin was my seventh pin. It was one of the books I took on vacation but I didn't include it in my vacation Pin It and Do It post because I wasn't done with it yet then. Since I still have about five more days this month, I may just be able to knock out another pin or two. I've got a party coming up with weekend and I might have to try out a couple of new recipes.

This week I'll have reviews of The Baker's Daughter by Sarah McCoy and Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. I'm hoping to get some pictures of the cats who aren't supposed to be living here but who are, so far, not bothering my allergies and working their way into our hearts. This week I'm reading The Mirrored World by Deborah Dean and The Bookie's Son by Andrew Goldstein for TLC Book Tours next week. What are you reading this week?

Friday, August 24, 2012

Fairy Tale Friday - Snow White - The Brothers Grimm Illustrastions by Camille Rose Garcia

Snow White - The Brothers Grimm, illustration by Camille Rose Garcia
Published February 2012 by HarperCollins Publishers
Source: fairy tale book on clearance? You know I bought this one!

"Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who's the fairest one of all?"

You all know at least the story - wicked stepmother, beautiful girl seeking asylum with a group of dwarfs, wicked stepmother tries to kill girl, handsome prince saves girl. What sets this one apart are the illustrations by Camille Rose Garcia, he fantastic colors and the simply superb text. It is a visual masterpiece. The publishers have combined a variety of sizes, fonts and backgrounds so that even the pages without illustrations are beautiful.

Camille Rose Garcia
Garcia's characters are a little creepy, with their oversized, triangular heads and sharp features - it's one of her trademarks. I must admit that it was a little difficult to imagine the mirror finding either the wicked stepmother or this version of Snow White as the fairest of them all!

According to her website, Garcia's "cartoon characters in wasteland fairy tales are critical commentaries on the failures of capitalist utopias, blending nostalgic pop culture references with a satirical slant on modern society." She sites as her inspiration early works by Disney and Max Fleisher. Garcia has also illustrated Alice's Adventures In Wonderland for HarperCollins Publishers.
Camille Rose Garcia

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson
Published August 2012 by Random House Trade Paperbacks
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher and TLC Book Tours

I goofed. I just knew I could squeeze one more book in before I started reading this one. I was sure I could knock this one out in a few days. I wasn't counting on two things: the reduced reading time my new work schedule has caused and the fact that I was not going to want to rush this book.

The Orphan Master's Son tells the story of Jun Do, a North Korean whose opera-singing mother was kidnapped when he was too young to have any memory of her and whose father took the job of Orphan Master so that he could be with his son. For the rest of his life, Jun Do will fight the misconception that he is an orphan himself and the stigma associated.
As an "orphan," Jun Do is stuck doing the worst jobs, but it's by doing these jobs that he learns the skills and life lessons that will allow him to pursue a passion that will put him at odds with the most powerful man in North Korea.

Do I love this one so far? No, but I think I might by the time I'm finished. I have no way of knowing how much of what Johnson has written about life in North Korea might be true. It certainly all seems plausible and, in any case, it's something I've never read about before. I have to keep pausing and questioning if such things might be true (patrolling the tunnels that run from North Korea, through the DMZ, and on into South Korea, for example). As I read a scene about the fishing boat Jun Do is working on coming across a shipping container's worth of Nike shoes floating in the sea, I kept trying to figure out how I was going to describe that scene to you in a way that would do it justice. I'm fascinated by how each of Jun Do's experiences are shaping him and how his opinion of his life and his government shift and alter.

You'll be hearing more about this book when I finish it. For now, know at this point I'm already convinced that this is a book that lives up to all of the accolades it has earned.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour. For other opinions, check out the full list of reviews, probably by people who have actually finished the book!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Sea Escape by Lynne Griffin

Sea Escape by Lynne Griffin
Published July 2010 by Simon & Schuster
Source: my copy was sent to me by Michelle of Red Headed Book Child

"When I was a girl, my father's excuses for leaving - providing for his family and changing the world - were as easy to believe in as his adventure stories. He loved the colorful surroundings he wrote about and his familiar home too. What I couldn't comprehend now, as I sat by her bedside for the second night in a row, watching her sleep, was why my mother put up with that kind of marriage. My father's travels took him all over the world to exotic and stimulating cities while she, competent woman that she was, was left to try to express her love for him in fabric."

Laura Martinez  and her mother's relationship has been rocky for years, yet when Helen suffers from a stroke, Laura knows time may be running out for her to make amends.To learn why Helen turned away from Laura and her brother, Holden, when her beloved husband, Joseph, died, Laura turns to the letters Joseph wrote to Helen, letters Helen has never shared. Trying to balance care for her mother and care for her two young children, Holden and Claire, Laura finds that being in the middle place is pulling her apart at the seams. To make matters worse, Laura is having problems accepting help and she doesn't even understand why she has such a bad relationship with her brother, who flits into town on long enough to sign a DNR order when Helen first has her stroke.

Sea Escape moves back and forth in time, from Helen's story to Laura's, revealing secrets to the reader that Laura won't learn until the end of the book - why Holden has so little to do with their mother, why there is such a big age gap between Holden and Laura, and why Helen's beloved home, Sea Escape, to so important to her. 

When I was packing books to take on vacation, I purposefully pulled books that had ties to the water, including this one and Maine, imagining that they would make lighter fare. Neither of them did. Instead both dealt with families, secrets and an appalling lack of communication all tied to a matriarch who makes life difficult for all around her and moving back and forth in time. Unfortunately, Sea Escape didn't work as well for me. I felt like there were parts of the story that were unnecessary, characters that weren't fully developed, too much going on, and story lines that might have been explored more fully. I wanted to find myself caring about Laura and Helen, cheering for them to reconcile, but I just didn't.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Sunday Salon - August 18

Summer isn't officially over for about another month but the kids in all of the school districts around here started back to school this week. That always makes it feel like summer is over, official or otherwise. Except at my house where, for the first time in 18 years, we didn't have any kids heading back to public schools. Wow, was that strange. That's not to say we haven't been making back-to-school preparations. Both of the boys start back to college tomorrow; Miss H has another couple of weeks.

It's been that same length of time since I had to be to work at a specific time. Since I started my new job, I've been starting work at 8 a.m. which has meant I'm battling all of the traffic that has just dropped off kids at school. This week I start a new schedule, a schedule designed to help me keep my sanity but which may cut into my reading time. I'll work an extra hour four days a week, getting me to work ahead of the traffic and also giving me a half day off one day a week. I'm really looking forward to that half day. I'm thinking I'll really be able to get some big projects done on those days...or have a nice long chunk of reading time uninterrupted. Hmm, maybe this won't cut into my reading after all.

I went way out of my reading comfort zone this week, reading Ernest Cline's Ready Player One. Let's just say, for know, that I found it interesting and I'm sure it's one that my oldest will enjoy. It will pass to his hands next. Followed that with Karen White's Falling Home which felt like I was eating comfort food or slipping into a favorite pair of slippers. I like to stretch my boundaries with my reading choices but it always feels good to fall back on women's fiction.

With all of that talk about cutting back on books I'm accepting for review, somehow I still managed to have four new books arrive at my house this week. This does not bode well for my efforts to get through all of my review books by the end of the year.

With Mini-him moving back home recently, we have been working hard on finding space for all of the things we'll have to store until he's ready to move out again. It's been a great incentive to clean out and purge. Today I managed to convince The Big Guy to get rid of the last of the textbooks he's been holding onto...for twenty-five years! I also got rid of a dozen books I've been holding onto for a long time. There are still more books to go through but I'm not sure how far I can push The Big Guy to get rid of any more for a while. Purging books was a topic of conversation on Twitter last week; how do you decide which books to keep and which to get rid of?

This week I've got reviews of Lynn Griffin's Sea Escape, an new adaptation of Snow White, and Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son. This week I'll start The Baker's Daughter, by Sarah McCoy, for a TLC book tour. What are you reading this week?

Friday, August 17, 2012

The After Wife by Gigi Levangie Grazer

The After Wife by Gigi Levangie Grazer
Published July 2012 by Random House Publishing Group
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher

Hannah had almost given up on the idea of marriage and family when John Bernal walked into her life. Theirs was the classic case of love at first sight and five years and one wonderful daughter later they were living a fairy tale life. But when John is killed, Hannah's not sure that she can go on without him. Enter the Grief Team: Hannah's producing partner and three-year-old Ellie's wardrobe master, Jay; bitter, aging actress, Aimee; and mommy blogger and dog saver, Chloe.

Being a widow in L.A. is tough, Hannah's not sure she can ever face the idea of romance and sex again, and, thanks to a lapsed life insurance policy, Hannah and Ellie may just lose the only home Ellie has ever known. Then things get even harder when Hannah starts seeing, and talking to, dead people. It costs her a job and even her friends think she may have lost her mind. But the spirit world may be just the thing Hannah needs to pull her through.

The After Wife is surprisingly humorous, given the premise (it reminded me very much of Lian Dolan's Helen of Pasadena but with an even lighter tone), often bordering on just plan silly. Occasionally it felt like Grazer was pushing too hard and the characters were a bit stereotyped, but overall I enjoyed The After Wife. Which, I must admit, surprised me; I think I've mentioned before that I have a problem with suspending disbelief. But I got a kick out of Hannah's dealings with the spirits. For a vacation read, it was just right. A little love, a precocious child, a cast of funny supporting characters and a heroine I couldn't help but cheer for had me racing through the book.

Gigi Levangie Grazer is the wife of Hollywood producer Brian Grazer so she knows her way around her setting and it shows. She is also the author of The Starter Wife, which was made into a mini-series starring Debra Messing and of the screenplay for Stepmom, starring Julia Roberts and Susan Sarandon.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan

Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan
Published June 2011 by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Book
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher

Maine is the story of four women, three generations of Kelleher women, and what it means to be a family.

Matriarch, Alice, is an alcoholic, no-holds-barred, deeply religious woman, racked by guilt and profoundly lonely after the death of her beloved husband, Daniel. Alice took on the roles of wife and mother as penance but she never let her family forget that it had cost her her dreams. There is nothing warm, soft or fuzzy about Alice.

Alice holds daughter, Kathleen, partially responsible for Daniel's death and harbors anger over what she perceives as his habit of spoiling Kathleen. With a mother like Alice, it's no wonder Kathleen also became an alcoholic, determined to live her life as differently as she can possibly be, including having an extremely close relationship with her daughter, Maggie.

Thirty-two year old Maggie finds herself pregnant and dealing with a boyfriend who won't commit, a mother she's afraid to disappoint and a grandmother she can't seem to connect with. Maggie calls Alice charming on the outside, icy on the inside, a woman who has warmed to boyfriend, Gabe but won't open up to Maggie.

Ann Marie, who came into the Kelleher clan when she married son Patrick, feels tremendous pressure to care for her mother-in-law and to be the perfect wife and mother. Once her children have left home, though, she begins to question how they could have all turned out so differently from what she had hoped. She turns to a dollhouse obsession and a crush on a married man.

Maine is a story about communication as much as it is about family. What is not said plays a much more important role in the women's relationships as what is said. Alice has never told anyone about the guilt that she has lived with, she has never confronted Kathleen about her anger she felt when Daniel left Kathleen his money. Ann Marie won't tell the family that her son Daniel is not the crown prince he was raised to be or that her daughter, Fiona, is gay. These kinds of stories always make me think about how my own family communicates - what we say and what we don't. The four women's stories overlap as Sullivan moves back and forth between each woman's narratives and back and forth in time. There are no easy answers in Maine but Sullivan's characters show real, believable growth. As much as these women change, they remain true to their essential characters.

Maine is a terrific summer read, a beach book with depth.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Pin It And Do It Challenge - The Vacation Edition

Knowing the Pin It And Do It Challenge was coming up as I planned for our recent vacation, I used Pinterest to scout out things to do while we were on the road. I have to admit, it feels a little bit like cheating, except for the fact that now I have a lot of Minneapolis things pinned that we didn't get to do. If the purpose of the challenge is to work through the things we pinned, I've actually gone backwards by pinning vacation ideas! Here's what I did get done in the past week:

1. Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan - from my Books and Book Love board, this is a book I've been wanting to get to for more than a year. I took advantage of my in-laws' wonderful porch and a beautiful cool day to finish this one. My review will post later this week.

2. The After Wife by Gigi Lavangie Grazer - definitely not the kind of story I generally read but perfect for a vacation read. My review of this will also post this week.

3. Hell's Kitchen - located in downtown Minneapolis, everything in this restaurant is homemade and incredibly delicious. With two vegetarians in the family, finding a place to eat can be tricky, but Hell's Kitchen had us covered. Mini-him did go for the chicken wings (most meat I've ever seen on wings), Mini-me had huevos rancheros, The Big Guy had a huge breakfast platter, Miss H enjoyed the penne pasta, and I had the most incredible grilled cheese sandwich ever (3 cheeses inside, coated with Parmesan outside). On our way out the door, we picked up some of their homemade peanut butter; good thing I didn't look at the price first - expensive but the kids loved it when they had it at my in-laws'.

4. Lake Harriet - We ended up at Lake Harriet for part of two evenings. Both nights there were concerts at the bandstand, the kids swam at one of the beaches one evening and we had fun feeding the ducks and just lounging lakeside. There's nothing I find more relaxing than sitting beside water and Miss H finally got the beach time she's been wanting for a long time. The only problem? There are a lot of people who enjoy spending time at the lake in the evenings - with walkers, runners, bikers, and roller-bladers, the paths were crowded.

5. Minneapolis Institute of Art - when you have a son majoring in studio art and you're going to be in a city where there is a major exhibit of Rembrandt's works, you know that you're going to be spending time at the museum. Luckily for the rest of us, the Minneapolis Institute of Art has something for everyone, from ancient works to modern art. I plotted out the galleries I was going to visit but got off track almost immediately. It's just impossible to walk by ancient works and not be awed by them.

The museum itself is free. The Rembrandt exhibit had a fee - unless you're Mini-me, who some how managed to get in for free (do you think he played the "hey I'm a poor art student card?).  The rest of us decided to forgo that exhibit, but Mini-me said it was fantastic. The rest of us worked our way through the American and European exhibits, finishing up with the Impressionists. I'm quite sure we could have spent all day at MIA; we didn't even get to the Modern galleries. But our feet were sore, our stomachs were growling, Miss H had exhausted her interest in art and there were too many other things to be done. My favorite things? The interior room exhibits (from a Chinese reception hall to an American Revolution era parlor) and the Impressionist rooms. Here is Mini-him's favorite painting:

Pierre-Auguste Renoir - The Piazza San Marco, Venice

6. Weisman Art Museum - We weren't done with art museums yet. Mini-me is already shopping for graduate school art programs so while we were in Minneapolis is only made sense for us to take a spin through the University of Minnesota campus. Of course, while we were there, we had to visit the Weisman Art Museum, as much for the building as for the modern art collection it houses. I'm not much of a fan of modern art, so I'll confess that I spent half of my time there in the gift shop.

Designed by Frank Gehry
And that's how I used my vacation to get three-fourths of the way toward my goal for the Pin It And Do It Challenge. Pinterest was a great way for us to plan for vacation  - and with a laptop, we had easy access to the information without having to drag along a lot of brochures or printouts. I highly recommend it!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Sunday Salon - August 12

How does that song go? "Back to life, back to reality." Re-entry is always tough - all of those dirty clothes you've brought home, getting back to a schedule, having to cook your own meals.

As long as we weren't in the car in the city, we had a great vacation and I loved that all five of us were able to go. As my kids get older, I know that opportunities for family vacations are growing fewer and fewer. We started our trip off with a couple of days visiting my brother-in-law and his wife in Decorah, Iowa. It's a charming small town in northeast Iowa that proudly celebrates its Nordic heritage. Set in a river valley and up the bluffs, it's a small town with plenty to do and all of the amenities.

Here's where I spent a good part of every day we were in Decorah. The temperatures had finally dropped enough that the porch was a great place to relax with a good book. My in-laws are both big readers so they completely understood my need to spend some down time not talking - in fact, my sister-in-law read an entire book while we were there. She's been working crazy hours for the past few months so I was glad to give her permission to stick her nose in a book and ignore us.

With all five of us in the vehicle, there was very little room for purchases along the way. Of course that didn't stop me from picking up a couple of books at Dragonfly Books. It's my duty as a book lover to support indie bookstores and my duty as a tourist to support the local economy, right? I picked up a couple of more books at Paper Moon in McGregor, Iowa, on the banks of the Mississippi River. Paper Moon is one part bookstore, one part gift shop. It is three stories of fun.

Across from McGregor lies Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, home of the Valley Fish and Cheese shop. As good as the food they sell is, one of the main draws of the shop is the outdoor decor. This big boy just may be the background of our Christmas card family photo.

Then it was on to the Twin Cities. If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I hated the traffic in Minneapolis (seriously people - red lights are not merely a suggestion) but loved the food (Sebastian Joe's ice cream is some of the best we've ever had) and the museums.

Next year? Even The Big Guy who likes to keep busy agrees that it's time to take a vacation that involves staying put in one place for the entire week. I'm already trying to think about how many books I'll need to take for that kind of vacation.

What's your favorite place to vacation?

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Dog Days of Summer

We are truly in the dog days of summer - record high temps, record low rainfall. Just where did this saying come from? According to, it has to do with the constellations, and the brightest star in Canis Major, Sirius.

 In the summer, however, Sirius, the “dog star,” rises and sets with the sun. During late July Sirius is in conjunction with the sun, and the ancients believed that its heat added to the heat of the sun, creating a stretch of hot and sultry weather. They named this period of time, from 20 days before the conjunction to 20 days after, “dog days” after the dog star.

So what to do to make these days better? How about reading some books about dogs? There are so many books about dogs for all ages, you could make a readathon of dog books the whole family could participate in. For the youngest readers, there is Dr. Seuss' Go, Dog, Go; Gene Zion's Harry, The Dirty Dog; and Laura Numeroff's If You Give A Dog A Donut. For the elementary-aged children try Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's Shiloh , William H. Armstrong's Sounder, Wilson Rawls' Where The Red Fern Grows, Fred Gipson's Old Yeller, Jack London's Call of the Wild or White Fang, John R. Erickson's Hank the Cowdog series and Dodie Smith's 101 Dalmations. If these books don't teach your children something about empathy, nothing will.

For mom and dad, how about Garth Stein's The Art of Racing In the Rain or David Wroblewski's The Story of Edgar Sawtelle? Looking for something scarier? Try Stephen King's Cujo or for a touch of fantasy there's Carolyn Parkhurt's The Dogs of Babel. If you're looking for a dog book that will make you laugh and cry, try John Grogan's Marley and Me. 

 When you're reading marathon is done, you can still stay inside and enjoy air-conditioning by watching the movie adaptations of a number of these great books. What books featuring dogs would you add to this list?

Monday, August 6, 2012

The World We Found by Thrity Umrigar

The World We Found by Thrity Umrigar
Published January 2012 by HarperCollins Publishers
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher and TLC Book Tours

Four friends, inseparable growing up, dedicated to a common cause through college and the two young men who desperately want to catch the eye of two of the young women.

Thirty years later, none of the six is where they imagined they would be and they have drifted apart. But when one of the women is diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor and given only six months to live, she wants nothing more than to be with her friends again. From half way across the world, Armaiti reaches out to Kavita and Laleh, imploring them to find Nishta and come from Mumbai to the U.S. She needs these women to watch over her daughter, Diane, after she is gone. Finding Nishta will be the easy part; getting Nishta on the plane will prove a much more difficult task and memories will overwhelm all six of the once-idealistic friends.

The other day Ryan, of Wordsmithsonia, asked his readers to tell him about a book that they liked but had a hard time explaining why. At the time, I had a hard time coming up with a book. Now I think that book is The World We Found. It's not because I don't know why I liked this book; I do. Sometimes, though, it's just so difficult to put it into words.

Umrigar always creates marvelous, multi-dimensional characters with incredible depth. India comes alive in her hands - I never fail to want to travel there after reading one of Umrigar's books. The relationships between her characters are incredibly real. Most importantly, Umrigar's books always make me think - about the world and about the way I see it.

But does that say why I like this particular book? I'm not sure. Perhaps the thing that sets this book apart for me were the internal struggles some of the characters fought. Iqbal, Nishta's husband, might be the "bad" guy of The World We Found but Umrigar makes the reader understand him by showing the reader how he became the person he is and how hard everyday is for him. Armaiti struggling to come to terms with her own death and how it impacts those around her. Laleh and Adish's marriage which is, as all marriages are, a daily struggle to combine two different people into one unit.

A huge thank you to TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour. I have no doubt that The World We Found will make it's way to the list of my favorite books this year, as did the other Thrity Umrigar books I've read, The Weight of Heaven and The Space Between Us. For other opinions about this book, see the full tour list. To learn more about Umrigar and her work, check out her website.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Sunday Salon - August 5

Happy Sunday! I'm off enjoying myself and relaxing (well, as best I can with the entire family stuck in the car and my go-go-go-go husband). I packed my books to take so long ago, I had a hard time remembering what I'll have with me. Here's what I've brought with me: The After Wife by Levangie Granger, Falling Home by Karen White and Sea Escape by Lynne Griffin.

In light of the fact that part of our trip will be spent in Minnesota, this week I'm bringing you some books set in Minnesota today. If you're a female, you probably spent at least some of your reading time with the Ingalls family. On The Banks of Plum Creek tells of the family's time in Minnesota where they first live in a dugout and where they meet the infamous Nellie Oleson.

Both of Peter Geye's novels, Safe From The Sea and the upcoming The Lightening Road, are set in Minnesota on the Great Lakes. He's not the only author to pick up on the darker aspects of living in a place where it's cold so much of the year. A lot of mystery writers come out of Minnesota or set their books in the state including John Sandford, William Kent Krueger and Tami Hoag. For a lighter take on mysteries set in Minnesota, check out Joanna Fluke's foodie mysteries. Just be sure you're not too hungry - you will want a little something sweet before you're finished.

Of course, it goes without saying (but clearly I'm going to say it anyway) that Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon Days and In Search of Lake Wobegon are set in Minnesota. Less obvious is  Stephen King's Dumas Key, which kicks off in Minnesota and Ann Patchett's State of Wonder which starts and ends in Minnesota.

Elizabeth Berg set Range of Motion in Minnesota, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote the collection wrote a collection of stories about St. Paul, Minnesota where his family hailed from, and in Peace Like A River Leif Enger's protagonist recalls his childhood in small-town Minnesota.

As I'm writing this before I leave, and thinking about all of the choices there are for reading about Minnesota, I'm wondering if I need to go check my shelves and find one more book to pack. Surely I've got something that will work.

What are you reading this week?

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Absent Traveler and Other Stories by Randall De Vallance

The Absent Traveler: A Novella & Other Stories by Randall De Vallance
Published December 2010 by Atticus Books
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher in exchange for this review

About a year and a half ago, I was contacted by indie publisher Atticus Books wondering if I wanted to work with them. I said "yes" for two reasons: I wanted to encourage a small publisher by helping get word out about their books and because they had some very interesting-sounding books. They sent this one and it went straight on the shelf with my other review books where...I forgot about them. In my recent frenzy to clean up and weed out, this book came back up for consideration. Once again guilt reared its ugly head - I had told this publisher I would like to work with them and then abandoned them. With the High Summer Read-a-Thon right around the corner, I decided this book would stay and the read-a-thon would be the perfect opportunity to read it.

Not only did The Absent Traveler make an excellent read-a-thon book, it made an excellent choice for lunch time reading - if for no other reason than that it's a slim volume and light to carry! Unfortunately, once again, I'm reminded that I do not like to read an entire book of short stories straight through. De Vallance has a unique voice and some very interesting ideas. But I always end  up feeling, as I read story after story, that I'm not getting enough to really sink my teeth into. By far and away, my favorite piece in this collection was the title story, The Absent Traveler, a story about a young man who is floundering trying to find his place in the world. Stuck in a dead end job that doesn't earn him enough money to live decently, Charles Lime is unable to move home because of a contentious relationship with his father and miserable living in the cluttered basement of an alcoholic woman. Charles' only escape are travel books. Things seem to escalate when a high-school classmate comes back to town and strange things begin happening to Charles. This story had a fantastic ending that came out of nowhere for me.

I enjoyed many of the short stories, but I do feel that I would have enjoyed all them more if I had stuck this book in my purse and pulled it out when I needed something short to read. In that context, short stories work really well for me - then I love being able to work through an entire idea in one setting. If you're a fan of short stories, if you're a fan of the offbeat, I would definitely recommend The Absent Traveler.