Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Man From Beijing by Henning Mankell

The Man From Beijing by Henning Mankell
Published February 2010 by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Source: I bought this one...twice

Publisher's Summary:
January 2006. In the Swedish hamlet of Hesjövallen, nineteen people have been massacred. The only clue is a red ribbon found at the scene.

Judge Birgitta Roslin has particular reason to be shocked: Her grandparents, the Andréns, are among the victims, and Birgitta soon learns that an Andrén family in Nevada has also been murdered. She then discovers the nineteenth-century diary of an Andrén ancestor—a gang master on the American transcontinental railway—that describes brutal treatment of Chinese slave workers. The police insist that only a lunatic could have committed the Hesjövallen murders, but Birgitta is determined to uncover what she now suspects is a more complicated truth.

The investigation leads to the highest echelons of power in present-day Beijing, and to Zimbabwe and Mozambique. But the narrative also takes us back 150 years into the depths of the slave trade between China and the United States—a history that will ensnare Birgitta as she draws ever closer to solving the Hesjövallen murders.  

My Thoughts:
I first heard about The Man From Beijing in 2010 on NPR and I was convinced I needed to read it. I bought it as soon as it came out in paperback and then, as so often happens, it sat on the shelf, neglected, until I found an audiobook copy at my library sale. Finally, I was going to learn what makes the world-renowned Mankell so popular.

After 12 CD's though, I still don't know. The book opens with a bang; the brutal murders of 19 people are discovered in Sweden.  Almost immediately, though, I began to have doubts. It was clear, early on, that while the police blundered along, Birgitta was going to find clue after clue without their help and without their being willing to give credence to what she's discovered. It's just the kind of thing that will turn me off of a television series (I'm looking at you CSI: Miami). Still, I was interested to uncover the truth behind the murders.
Copyright Lina Ikse Bergman

Eventually Mankell was going to get there, but not until readers had been taken on a massive detour into history, traveling from China to Nevada to England and back to China. It set up the reason for the murders but it was so jarring and so drawn out, I completely lost interest in the book. In fact, if I'd actually been reading the book, I might have tossed it aside. Since I could let it drone on without paying much attention, I did until I found myself back in the present, although still in China. Here again the story became interesting but it felt completely unrelated to the murder mystery. Finally Mankell tied that part of the story back to the murder mystery and Birgitta and the story picked up again.

Mankell has a lot to say with The Man From Beijing. He takes jabs at the Swedish government, the U.S. and all Western powers, Mao, and corruption in growing China, and Chinese development in Africa. It's all very interesting stuff - it just seemed out of place in a murder mystery. Then again, this really isn't a murder mystery. The biggest mystery still remains, for me, why people in 40 countries wanted Mankell's books translated.

Monday, July 29, 2013

High Summer Readathon - It's A Wrap

The High Summer Read-a-Thon wrapped up yesterday and while I didn't get quite as much reading done as I'd hoped to, I did get two books read and got a good start on a third.

True, I didn't have much choice about getting through The Chalice since I had to read it in time for a scheduled review. Also true that I might well have made the time to read all of Beth Hoffman's Looking For Me readathon or not. I was hooked from the first paragraph and Hoffman had me in tears by the time I was done reading, something that very rarely happens.

My plan going into the readathon was to read a book for review after The Chalice followed by something I've had on my bookshelves for a while. For that book I chose Alice Hoffman's The Ice Queen; I've read about a fourth of it so far and should be able to finish it in the next couple of days.

Even though I didn't get as much reading done as I'd hoped to, the High Summer Read-a-Thon may just have kickstarted my reading mojo again. I'm excited to be reading again; thanks, Michelle!

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Life: It Goes On - July 28

Happy 25th birthday to Mini-him! We celebrated Friday night with friends and family with his favorite foods. It's hard to believe this grown man could possibly be the same person who changed us from a couple to a family very early in the morning 25 years ago! We couldn't be more proud of the young man he's become!

Last night was spent on the patio with friends, fire, and refreshments. The weather here is lovely right now and even with the fire, we still needed cardigans to stay warm. Perfect!

Mini-him greeting his new baby sister
Here's What I'm:

Listening To: Tom Perrotta's The Abstinence Teacher. A third of the way in and so far we've spent most of the book getting to know the two central characters' backgrounds. I was disappointed to find an author who is so well respected refer to breasts as "pillowy."

Watching: This morning on CBS Sunday Morning they had a piece on author Nora Roberts. One of the most interesting parts of the story was hearing about the 18th-century building in a nearby town that Roberts bought, saved and turned into an inn. The room are all named after, and designed to reflect the time period of, fictional couples. I must say, I'm think I really need to go stay in the Elizabeth and Darcy room!

Reading: I'm finishing up Beth Hoffman's Looking For Me today as I wrap up the High Summer readathon. This one had me hooked from the opening paragraph. Next up is Alice Hoffman's The Ice Queen.

Making: Asian chicken salad and red velvet cake for birthday dinner, a cheesecake fruit dip for last night and this week we had our first fresh tomato, basil and mozzarella pasta supper of the season.

Planning: This week's plans are to finish up a number of projects around the house so August can be about starting new things.

Grateful for: My brother-in-law taking The Big Guy fishing this morning. I'd like to say that's because I'm happy to see BG enjoying himself, but really it's because it's so much quieter around here when he's gone!

Loving: The weather right now - so nice to be able to shut off the a/c and open the windows!

Thinking: I spend way too much time on electronic devices. I'm seriously contemplating unplugging for a week.

Looking Forward To: I'm not looking forward just now - looking forward seems to mean thinking about the fall and I'm not ready to do that yet. I'm going to be enjoying the summer, thank you very much!

Friday, July 26, 2013

Kindle Daily Deal - The Crown

Kindle owners - tomorrow's Kindle Daily Deal is going to be Nancy Bilyeau's The Crown for $1.99. This is one you'll definitely want to add to your Kindle library if you enjoy historical fiction!

Thursday, July 25, 2013

All Things In Common - Manchuria

With all of the time periods, all of the places in the world, all of the themes there are to write about, I'm always surprised to find myself reading about something I've only just recently read about, particularly when it's something that I don't usually find in my reading. Recently that's happened twice to me.

In Haruki Murakami's The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, the Japanese invasion of Manchuria played a major part in the story. In a book filled with some really gruesome scenes, all of them played out in Manchuria. It was a time and place I knew almost nothing about and the book gave me the incentive, as books so often do, to learn more about this time and place. It's almost inconceivable to imagine that a country as small as Japan would think to seize a piece of land that was under Chinese control at the time but which also bordered on Russia.

Not only did the Japanese invade Manchuria, they established one of the most brutally run regions in the world as I was soon to learn more about when the next book I picked up was Jennifer Cody Epstein's The Gods of Heavenly Punishment. In it, one of the key scenes involves an incident of cruelty by a Japanese character who is working in Manchuria with the military. It's an event that will have long-reaching impact in the book and particularly plays up the brutality and heartlessness of those in charge. As did Laura Hildenbrand's Unbroken, this book made me understand why so many carried so much hatred toward the Japanese for so long.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Chalice by Nancy Bilyeau

The Chalice by Nancy Bilyeau
Published March 2013 by Touchstone
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher and TLC Book Tours in exchange for this honest review

Publisher's Summary:
In 1538, England’s bloody power struggle between crown and cross threatens to tear the country apart. Novice Joanna Stafford has tasted the wrath of the royal court, discovered what lies within the king’s torture rooms, and escaped death at the hands of those desperate to possess the power of an ancient relic.

Even with all she has experienced, the quiet life is not for Joanna. Despite the possibilities of arrest and imprisonment, she becomes caught up in a shadowy international plot targeting Henry VIII himself. As the power plays turn vicious, Joanna realizes her role is more critical than she’d ever imagined. She must choose between those she loves most and assuming her part in a prophecy foretold by three seers. Repelled by violence, Joanna seizes a future with a man who loves her. But no matter how hard she tries, she cannot escape the spreading darkness of her destiny.

To learn the final, sinister piece of the prophecy, she flees across Europe with a corrupt spy sent by Spain. As she completes the puzzle in the dungeon of a twelfth-century Belgian fortress, Joanna realizes the life of Henry VIII as well as the future of Christendom are in her hands—hands that must someday hold the chalice that lies at the center of these deadly prophecies.  

My Thoughts: 
It's been a long time since I went straight from one book straight into the next book in a series (maybe since Mini-me and I read A Series of Unfortunate Events!!) so I was a bit hesitant about doing just that. If you love the first book, can the next one live up to it? If the author is striving to make the second book capable of being a stand alone book, will there be too much retelling of the original story?

The Chalice could be read as a stand-alone book; Bilyeau does an excellent job of working the background information from The Crown into The Chalice. Once again Joanna Stafford is at the center of the story but this plot is much more complex and if I had not just read The Crown it really would have been difficult to keep track of the players without a scorecard.

There is much more going on in this book and it feels very much like a roller coaster ride. It sometimes felt like too much as Joanna moved from one dangerous situation into another, with periods of surprising calm interspersed. In The Chalice I felt much less like Joanna was the plucky little heroine who stands up to the powers that be and much more like someone who continually misreads situations, putting herself and others in harms way making it harder to like her. And prophecy and seers? We're treading on fantasy reading here, folks, and you know I always have a hard time buying into that. Still, I couldn't help but get caught up in The Chalice and Joanna's quest, which, when it comes right down to it, was less about saving England and more about making England a place where she could live her life in safety, surrounded by those she loved. When you bring the big story down to that, it's hard not to like the book.

Readers are, once again, fully immersed in a time and place and by taking the story out of England, Bilyeau is able to help the reader grasp the bigger picture of what was happening in the world. I haven't read a lot of historical fiction set in the time of Henry VIII and I've certainly never read one written from the perspective of the Catholics. In some ways, coming from that point made the outcome of the story much more of a mystery. I know that Catholicism never regained it's grip over England so how could Joanna succeed in her mission to restore it?

For other opinions about this book, check out the full tour.

Nancy Bilyeau is a magazine editor who has worked at such publications as Rolling Stone and InStyle and is now the executive editor of DuJour. A native of the Midwest, she earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan. She researched and workshopped her first novel, The Crown, for five years before finding an agent and selling it in an auction to Touchstone/Simon&Schuster in 2010. For The Chalice, she traveled to England to do in-depth research into the tumultuous late 1530s of the Tudor era. She lives in New York City with her husband and two children. For more information about Nancy and her work, visit her website at nancybilyeau.com.  

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

High Summer Read-a-Thon

This is just what I need, an excuse not to do much on these very hot days except read, read, read! The High Summer Read-a-Thon, hosted by Michelle of Seasons of Reading and The True Book Addict, runs from yesterday (I know, I know, I'm late to the party) through Sunday, July 28th. I haven't got much on the calendar this week and Miss H is out of town for a couple of days (I can't tell you how much quieter that makes my house!) so I'm hoping to find some good chunks of time to read.

I'll be finishing up Nancy Bilyeau's The Chalice today. Next up, I think, will be Beth Hoffman's Looking For Me from the review shelf and then I'm pulling something off the book shelves of neglected books. Perhaps something that's been there for years, like Miriam Toewe's The Flying Troutmans, or one of the books from my classics challenge list. Of course the biggest challenge is always doing all of that reading without guilt. Wish me luck!

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau

The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau
Published January 2012 by Touchstone
Source: I won a copy of this from Heather at Raging Bibliomania and the publisher more than a year ago

Publisher's Summary: 
JOANNA STAFFORD, a Dominican nun, learns that her favorite cousin has been condemned by Henry VIII to be burned at the stake. Defying the rule of enclosure, Joanna leaves the priory to stand at her cousin’s side. Arrested for interfering with the king’s justice, Joanna, along with her father, is sent to the Tower of London.

While Joanna is in the Tower, the ruthless Bishop of Winchester forces her to spy for him: to save her father’s life she must find an ancient relic—a crown so powerful, it may possess the ability to end the Reformation.

With Cromwell’s troops threatening to shutter her priory, bright and bold Joanna must decide who she can trust so that she may save herself, her family, and her sacred way of life. 

My Thoughts:
When I won this book from Heather in April of 2012, I had every intention of reading it as soon as it arrived. But, as so often happens, it landed on the book shelf and there it sat. When I was approached about being on a tour for Bilyeau's follow up book, The Chalice (my review on Wednesday), I decided it was time to pick this one up. I hate reading books out of order if I can avoid it.

Heather wrote an great review of the book and I highly recommend reading it if you want a more in-depth review of the plot; she loved this book.  Reviewers at the Barnes & Noble website (bn.com) almost unanimously rate this book a 4 or 5 out of 5. With good reason.

The book is well-researched and Bilyeau's descriptions drop you right into 16th-century England at a time of great upheaval. After Henry VIII separated England from the Catholic church, it was a time of great danger for anyone wishing to retain their faith, particularly those who had devoted themselves to it. Bilyeau uses Joanna's search to blend the machinations of the court and the struggles of the religious communities into a mystery novel that also includes murder, lust, family relationships and even romance. It is a unique story with just the right amount of historical detail to give it authenticity without being overdone. Joanna is a young woman dealing with discoveries that lead to wide-ranging emotions. Bilyeau's characters are well-written, flawed and never just black or white.

Those of you who love all things Tudor will probably already have read this book. If not, I would definitely recommend it. For you, it will probably be much easier to keep track of who's who and how they are all related. For me, I really wished I would have taken notes. I used to take notes fanatically while I read but lately I've been all about breezing through and hoping for the best. Big mistake with this one for anyone who isn't intimately familiar with all of the players in the court of Henry VIII, although it didn't distract from my enjoyment of the story. When I finished the book, I was more than ready to learn more about Joanna Stafford and what became of her friends and family.


Sunday, July 21, 2013

Life: It Goes On - July 21

I've been trying so hard this week to appreciate the heat of summer; I know before long I'll be complaining about the never-ending cold of winter. We certainly haven't been as hot as my friends on the East coast have been. Let's just say, though, that my coffee in the morning's been iced, there have been few dinners on the patio, and every day requires watering all of my plants outside. On the plus side, my tomato plants are thriving!

Here's What I'm:

Listening To: I'm starting Tom Perrotta's The Abstinence Teacher this week for my book. I've also downloaded about thirty podcasts on my phone so I've been having fun catching up with my NPR shows, Lian Dolan's The Chaos Chronicles, and TED Talks.

Watching: Last night we went to see Red 2 starring John Malkovich, Bruce Willis and Helen Mirren last night. So, so good! We went with a group of friends and I believe we three ladies guffawed so loudly and so often that we actually managed to embarrass The Big Guy. I can't begin to make you understand how hard that is to do!

Reading: Nancy Bilyeau - first The Crown and now The Chalice, which I'm reading for a TLC Book Tour. Then I've got time to pull something off my shelves before my next scheduled review. Can't decide if I'll read a review book or something that's been collecting dust for a while.

Making: Veggie pizza with homemade crust and homegrown tomatoes, basil, banana peppers. So yummy!

Planning: On trying to be more productive this week. I haven't felt well for the past couple of weeks and it shows around the house.

Grateful for:

Loving: Nook's Daily Find. I've added several more books to my Nook this week. The best part is that they come without guilt - they're inexpensive and won't sit on my shelves looking at me, wondering when I'll finally get around to reading them.

Thinking: There's an end in sight putting Miss H's room to rights. I have never seen anyone with so many bottles of nail polish, so little ability to get rid of anything, and so many darn bobby pins every where!

Looking forward to: Seeing old friends tonight. She is the person who introduced me to The Big Guy. Most of the time I love her very much for this! He and The Big Guy have been friends since they were fifteen. It will, undoubtedly, be another evening filled with much laughter and, god help me, stories about the good old days.

What are you looking forward to this week?

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Lit: Books, Books, and More Books

This week I'm just going to be rambling (and ranting a little) - I just wanted to forewarn you right up front.

I just ordered another book for my Nook; today's Nook deal was Sarah Dessen's What Happened To Goodbye? I've been hearing you all rave about Dessen for years so for $2.99 I decided it was time to give her a shot. Young adult books are usually not my thing but I'm trying to be more open minded..

I see that Meg Waite Clayton's latest book, The Wednesday Daughters is being released today. Clayton's The Wednesday Sisters is one of the books I've got ready on the Nook. Bloggers, have any of you read the new one yet?

I've been taking books to sell to Half-Price Books for a couple of years. I'm not always thrilled about the amount of money I get, but I've always looked at it this way: the books are out of my house and I got enough money to buy at least a couple of new-to-me books. But the other day I took more than a dozen recent, mostly hardcover books, in and after waiting 15-20 minutes got an offer of $4. $4?? That doesn't even pay for the time I was waiting for them! I get their pricing scheme; it's all about supply and demand and right now they have more supply than they know what to do with. But offering someone $4 for a dozen good books is kind of an insult. I walked out of the store with my books and will donate them to my library for their book sale.

I found this quote on Meg Waite Clayton's website:

"Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: "What! You too? I thought I was the only one. "— C.S. Lewis

I must say, I love that! I truly think that all of the friends I've made as an adult have come to me that way. Also, I think C.S. Lewis must have been a fascinating person; I'm always coming across wonderful things he has said.

I set a goal on Goodreads this year to try to read 80 books in 2013. I have only finished 35. Argh! I have read a couple of seriously big books (The Wind Up Bird Chronicle and Under The Dome and half of Les Miserable) and there were a couple of books that I started and didn't finish. But I have over 700 books on my to-be-read shelf on Goodreads and there are a good deal more books I don't have listed there that I want to read and/or already own to read. People, I am NOT a young woman! If I have any hope of reading a fraction of what I'd like to read in my lifetime, I need to get cracking!

What's the latest bookish news with you?

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Under The Dome by Stephen King

Under The Dome by Stephen King
Published: November 2009 by Scribner
Source: my copy purchased for my Nook - because I didn't want to lug a 1000 page book around

Publisher's Summary:
On an entirely normal, beautiful fall day in Chester's Mill, Maine, the town is inexplicably and suddenly sealed off from the rest of the world by an invisible force field. Planes crash into it and fall from the sky in flaming wreckage, a gardener's hand is severed as "the dome" comes down on it, people running errands in the neighboring town are divided from their families, and cars explode on impact. No one can fathom what this barrier is, where it came from, and when — or if — it will go away.

Dale Barbara, Iraq vet and now a short-order cook, finds himself teamed with a few intrepid citizens — town newspaper owner Julia Shumway, a physician's assistant at the hospital, a select-woman, and three brave kids. Against them stands Big Jim Rennie, a politician who will stop at nothing — even murder — to hold the reins of power, and his son, who is keeping a horrible secret in a dark pantry. But their main adversary is the Dome itself. Because time isn't just short. It's running out.

My Thoughts:
Long, long ago - okay, it was during the Super Bowl - the first commercial for the t.v. adaptation of Under The Dome aired and another Stephen King readalong was born. Once upon a time, before many of you were even born, I read a lot of King, half a dozen books to be exact. Then he veered off into the Dark Tower books and I had children and stopped reading books. Seriously, how do you people with small children find the time?!

Oh King, I'm so happy to have found my way back to you! Oh sure, the dialogue isn't always noteworthy, the action can be ridiculously over the top, and the reason for the dome was not entirely satisfying. But the bad guys were really bad, the good guys were practically wearing white hats, and the action was nonstop. I loved the characters! Vintage King. Watching what happens when people are cut off from the world was fascinating and utterly believable. Like lemmings, the residents of Chester's Mill just kept following Big Jim Rennie right over the cliff.

Now, about that television show. I've watched three episodes. I'm not sure I'll watch another. I know that King is okay with the changes that have been made and that should make them okay for me, too. But I just can't get over some of them. Like the fact that you can't hear through the dome any more or that some of the characters are missing. Then there are things like the wind (where is it coming from INSIDE of a dome?) and the size of the young men who were the big high school football heroes (these boys should be big not typical Hollywood pretty boys). Small things, sure, But they're grating on my nerves. I think I'll use that time every week to read instead, maybe another King. 

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Exiles by Allison Lynn

The Exiles by Allison Lynn
Published Little A / New Harvest July 2013
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher and TLC Book Tours

Publisher's Summary:
Nate, a mid-level investment banker on Wall Street, and his longtime girlfriend Emily can no longer afford their cramped apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Tired of trying to keep up with their jet-set friends, they jump at a job offer for Nate in Newport, Rhode Island – complete with a bucolic, small, and comparatively affordable new house. They pack their belongings tightly in their Jeep Cherokee and head north to start a new life. Yet less than an hour after arriving in Newport, the car is stolen and they’re left with nothing but the keys to their empty house and their bawling ten-month-old son.  
My Thoughts:
I recently read a review of a different book that questioned whether or not the person who wrote the summary had even read the book. I kind of feel the same way about this one. It's not so much, in either case, that the person had not read the book, it's just that the summary doesn't begin to actually sum up the book. Everything in the summary happens in the first chapter. Even that would be fine if the book were actually about how Nate and Emily cope with the lose of their vehicle and everything in it and their adjustment to a new environment. It's not.

It's about two very unlikable people who don't so much move as flee when it becomes clear that Nate is never going to be a bright and shining star in the investment industry and they'll never be able to keep up with the Jones'. This is not helped by the fact that Emily has decided she isn't going to work any more until she can find just the right job. When their Jeep is stolen, and the couple needs to survive the three-day holiday weekend until the banks reopen and they can access their money again, these two quickly prove that nothing has changed in their attitudes about money.

The bigger story, however, is that both Nate and Emily are keeping huge secrets from the other, as well as numerous smaller secrets. Nate's has to do with an hereditary medical condition which he may have passed down to his son but never told Emily about. Much is made of this disease and the impact it has had, and continues to have, on Nate. I'm not opposed to having a medical issue as a central point in a novel; I did feel like we got too much of it here. Emily's secret is more recent and, to my mind, much less forgivable. It says a tremendous amount about the kind of person Emily is and the resolution of what she's done didn't make me feel any better about her.

I can't say I ever warmed up to Nate and Emily but as the story progressed, and we learned more about Nate's relationship with his family, I did begin to empathize with Nate.

Using the tips I gave last week for picking a book club selection, this one does hit on a number of points: we're not entirely sure what will become of Nate and Emily by the end of the book, the characters are not necessarily likable, and there are bound to be differing opinions about this book. I know there are among the bloggers on the book's tour. To read other reviews, check out the full tour.

Allison Lynn is the author of the novel Now You See It, which won awards from both the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society and the Bronx Council on the Arts. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, People, and elsewhere. She teaches at Butler University in Indianapolis, where she lives with her husband, the writer Michael Dahlie, and their son.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Life: It Goes On - July 14

Good morning from sunny, hot Omaha. At least our mornings and evenings have been cool enough to enjoy breakfasts and evenings on the patio. There has been much reading on the patio this past week. I've posted, on Twitter and Facebook, pictures of what I'm reading and my cocktail of choice that evening. As a joke, I suggested that I should start a feature on the blog showing beverage and book pairings.

It's been a quiet week here at Chez Shep - we had absolutely nothing on the calendar. I did pick up a free ticket the other day to the U.S. Senior Open from the company I work for so The Big Guy enjoyed spending the day watching some great golf Thursday. Friday night there was a free blues concert downtown and last night we got together with friends and enjoyed dinner at a dive restaurant on the riverside. So relaxing!

Here's What I'm:

Listening To: I'm still listening to Henning Mankell's The Man From Beijing. I'm hoping to finish it this week. Next up, I think, will be Tom Perrotta's The Abstinence Teacher.

Watching: Under The Dome but I'm about to give up on it. I know there are changes that need to be made with adaptations and I know that King has approved the changes. But the changes have, for me, fundamentally changed the story.

Reading: I started The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau and will go straight from it into her The Chalice for an upcoming TLC Book Tours review. Philippa Gregory fans, this one's for you!

Making: Peppermint iced tea with the peppermint I'm growing in my herb wagon. So refreshing!

Our artist, bike-riding crazy-fun niece!
Planning: Dinner tonight with my niece who is coming into town to go to a concert with Mini-me. I love that my 21-year-old son and his 36-year-old cousin want to hang out together! She's getting ready to move to California so we're glad to get to see her before she takes off. Now I just have to figure out a gluten-free menu, something I've never worked around before. Any suggestions?

Grateful for: Air conditioning - this girl does not handle the heat well right now.

Loving: Fresh produce straight from my gardens. Banana peppers, cherry tomatoes, rhubarb, herbs - I can hardly keep up already with these.

Thinking: Summer should last longer. I love the longer days, the lazier pace (this is what happens when your kids are all grown up!), and the lighter eating.

Looking forward to:Book club this week - we get to Skype with our friend who has just returned from a trip to Africa. I'm thinking we won't talk very much about the book, though, which is a shame because we read Amor Towle's Rules of Civility which is such a good book.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Lit: Best Books For Book Club Discussions

I've been a member of the Omaha Bookworms for more than four years now and during that time I've learned a thing or two about what makes a good selection for book clubs. Well, at least what makes a good selection for the Bookworms. Nearly all of the books we read now have been read and recommended by one of our members to make sure the book is "discussion worthy." Can you tell that we've had experience with books that weren't?!

Here's what we've learned:

1. It's not necessary for everyone to like the book. In fact, some of our best discussions have happened when there were widely differing opinions about the book. None of the Bookworms loved this book and I can't tell you how much we disliked Frank Lloyd Wright by the time we got done. But...it did make us talk!

2. Happily ever after endings aren't necessarily the best choices. Books with endings that leave the reader wondering also make for a lot of opinions as to what might have happened.

3. It helps if the readers can relate to the characters. This doesn't necessarily mean they like the character or share a lot in common with the character. Olive Kitteredge was no one's favorite person but she was a wife and mother as most of us were and we all had opinions about the kind of wife and mother she was.

Ami McKay's The Birth House was full of characters we could relate to with most of us being mothers and all of us being women. Probably the best discussion we have ever had - we talked about the story, the characters, the ways we were able to relate the book to our own lives.

4. Books should be "doable." We meet monthly so we choose books between 300-400 pages. Everyone is busy and even this is pushing it for some of our members.

5. No fluff, no formulas. There's just not enough to talk about in these books. This isn't to say that, for example, chick lit is out of the mix. It just needs to be chick lit with something deeper to think about. Getting Rid of Matthew by Jane Fallon is definitely chick lit but with something different that provided plenty to talk about. What happens when that married man actually does leave his wife?

6. Variety. Having the same conversation month after month can get dull. Every year we read a classic, an award winner, and a nonfiction title. This also helps to ensure that we're reading books that appeal to every member at some point in the year. One of best discussions ever was last year's discussion of Laura Hildenbrand's Unbroken.

7. Choose books with issues that don't have cut and dried answers.The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks addresses a lot of issues, many of them without clear cut answers, most notably the use of human medical waste for research.

8. Learn something new. Choose books from other parts of the world. Mahbod Seraji's Rooftops of Tehran not only taught us about another culture and its history but it also highlighted how much we have in common with people all over the world.

Finally, be willing to take chances with books and come to meetings with ideas about discussion topics. It's not enough just to ask "did you like the book?" Think about character interactions, settings, decisions made, how you might have responded in similar circumstances.

Some other books that have generated good discussions for us were:

The Tricking of Freya by Christina Sunley
The Wedding Officer by Anthony Capella
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (the Bookworms have actually read this one twice!)
What I Thought I Knew by Alice Eve Cohen

Are you a member of a book club? If so, what books have made for the best discussions with your group? Do you have any suggestions for books or for picking a book?

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Lady And The Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier

The Lady And The Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier
Published December 2003
Source: I have two copies, print and audio. I have no recollection of where the print copy came from. If I borrowed it from you, please let me know so I can return it! The audio copy I bought.
Narrated by: Robert Blumenfeld and Terry Donnelly

Publisher's Summary:
A set of bewitching medieval tapestries hangs today in a protected chamber in Paris. They appear to portray a woman's seduction of a unicorn, but the story behind their making is unknown - until now.

Paris, 1490. A shrewd French nobleman commissions six lavish tapestries celebrating his rising status at Court. He hires the charismatic, arrogant, sublimely talented Nicolas des Innocents to design them. Nicolas creates havoc among the women in the house - mother and daughter, servant and lady-in-waiting - before taking his designs north to the Brussels workshop where the tapestries are to be woven.

There, master-weaver Georges de la Chapelle risks everything he has on finishing the tapestries - his finest, most intricate work - on time for his exacting French client. Ill-prepared for temptation and seduction, he and his family are consumed by the project and by their dealings with the full-blooded painter from Paris." The results change all their lives - lives that have been captured in the tapestries, for those who know where to look.

My Thoughts: 
As she did with The Girl With The Pearl Earring, Chevalier builds a story around a masterpiece about which not much is known, in this case a series of tapestries showing the seduction of a unicorn. The artist and weaver of the tapestries is unknown giving Chevalier free rein to build a story around the creation of the six works. Using more than a half dozen narrators, Chevelier moves her story forward in a more complex way than I've seen used before. The two narrators did a marvelous job with this big job, creating unique voices for each character.

Chevalier is nothing if not thorough in her research. I swear I could weave a tapestry...and that's my biggest quibble with this book. I'm certainly interested in learning about the process but I definitely don't want to feel like I'm capable of handling a loom by the end of a book.

Given Chevalier's skill, I'm certain that I'll be reading more of her work. The woman is a master at recreating a time and place.

Monday, July 8, 2013

The Hunt For Hitler's Warship by Patrick Bishop - Guest Review

The Hunt for Hitler's Warship by Patrick Bishop
Published: April 2013 by Regnery History
Source: our copy courtesy of the publisher and TLC Book Tours

This is a guest review by my husband who is every bit as apt to pick up non-fiction as fiction but who will not abide a dull book. He has no time for them. Thanks, Big Guy, for this review!

Publisher's Summary:
Winston Churchill called “the Beast.” It was said to be unsinkable. More than thirty military operations failed to destroy it. Eliminating the Tirpitz, Hitler’s mightiest warship, a 52,000-ton behemoth, became an Allied obsession.

In The Hunt for Hitler’s Warship, Patrick Bishop tells the epic story of the two men who would not rest until theTirpitz lay at the bottom of the sea. In November of 1944, with the threat to Russian supply lines increasing and Allied forces needing reinforcements in the Pacific, a raid as audacious as any Royal Air Force operation of the war was launched, under the command of one of Briain’s greatest but least-known war heroes, Wig Commander Willie Tait.

Bishop draws on decades of experience as a foreign war correspondent to paint a vivid picture of this historic clash of the Royal Air Force’s Davids versus Hitler’s Goliath of naval engineering. Readers will not be able to put down this account of one of World War II’s most dramatic showdowns.


The Big Guy's Thoughts:

As I have a bit of interest in WWII and especially the German machine that Hitler built and  heroic ways the Allied team was able to score a victory in Europe, this book was of interest from the outset.  I had heard of the Bismark, but did not know much about it's sister boat the Tirpitz. 

The story was well told in that it provided what you need to know in technical detail about the boat and other airplanes, subs and ships involved without the level of detail that becomes boring.  It sites the many attempted missions on the Tirpitz and the various groups of merchant ships and protective vessels coming across the Atlantic to help arm the Soviets.  You are also able to get a taste of Churchill's resolve when it came to neutralizing this vessel and defeating Hitler in general.

Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz
Part of the reason the Tirpitz is not as much of a household name as the Bismark is because after the sinking of the Bismark (quickly outlined in the early part of this book), Hitler was pretty protective of her. 

As I discovered it was used as more of a 'large club' at the ready in the hands of the Germans causing US and Britain to tread carefully in delivering goods to the Soviet Union and use a great deal of resources to protect the shipments and to protect our own warships, that could have been used in other theaters of the war. 

I also did not know how much the Soviet Union was unappreciative of the Allied support when the American and British put so many lives on the line and lost thousands to help arm them against Hitler's Eastern push. 

Again, the book reads reasonably light for the history of a fairly specific part of WWII, but it encompasses many interesting aspects of the war on both sides.  A very enjoyable read for anyone liking history especially that of WWII. 


Sunday, July 7, 2013

Life It Goes On - July 7

When this four-day weekend stretched out before me I had all kinds of glorious plans...and now it's Sunday and I can't figure out how it went by so quickly without me getting a fraction done of what I wanted to do. Of course, I never seem to remember, when I'm planning, that there will be other people with ideas about what we'll do. Or that you can't really do a readathon effectively while at the same time tackling a major home project.

We had a very nice Fourth of July, celebrating with my family at our house and enjoying the amazing fireworks show that one of my neighbors puts on. It's just this side of professional grade and we don't have to fight any traffic. Mini-me and his grandpa enjoyed their annual chance to blow things up, my mom brought homemade ice cream and my sister and I laughed until we cried...it was a good evening.

I never could capture a good shot!

Here's What I'm:

Listening To: The Talking Heads station on Pandora. Loving this one! On books, I'm still listening to Henning Mankell's The Man From Beijing and really enjoying it. Already I'm thinking I'll be picking up more by Mankell.

Watching: Catching up with A&E's Longmire and also watching CBS's Under The Dome. I'm trying to make myself get over all of the changes they've made. Since those changes are okay with Stephen King, I suppose they should be okay with me but I'm not sure it's giving me the same sense of connection to the characters and tension of the book.

Reading: I used the Summer Lovin' Read-a-thon as my excuse to spend a lot of time with my Nook this week. I devoted myself to getting through Under The Dome and spent nearly all day Friday reading, finishing it up on Saturday. Today I'm starting Allison Lynn's The Exiles for a TLC Book Tour.

Making: Red Velvet cake for the Fourth (because of course we need ice cream and cake!) and we also grilled portabello mushrooms for the first, but not the last, time. We've been eating a lot of salads this past week - The Big Guy came home with a giant bag of lettuce from the farmer's market last weekend.

Planning: On tackling the paper monster on my desk today. My basket seems to be the dumping ground for everyone.

Grateful for: The chance to be home to eat breakfast on the patio the past few days. The mornings have been beautiful and the guys and I have enjoyed spending an hour or so out there every day.

Loving: The new slipcover that The Big Guy got for our family room sofa. But don't tell him that. I really didn't think I liked the color or style when it arrived but once it was on, it really works. Except that now I need new throw pillows. Oh darn, I'll have to go shopping.

Thinking: This parenting thing never gets any easier, only different.

Looking forward to: Hearing all about the climb to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro my friend Mari and her husband just made. I've been enjoying watching their progress on Track My Tour but can't wait to talk to her about it when she returns to the States!

What are you looking forward to this week?

Friday, July 5, 2013

The Perks of Being A Wallflower by Stephen Chobsky

The Perks of Being A Wallflower by Stephen Chobsky
Published: February 1999 by MTV Books
Source: I read my daughter's copy of the book

Publisher's Summary:
Charlie is a freshman.

And while he's not the biggest geek in the school, he is by no means popular. Shy, introspective, intelligent beyond his years yet socially awkward, he is a wallflower, caught between trying to live his life and trying to run from it.

Charlie is attempting to navigate his way through uncharted territory: the world of first dates and mix tapes, family dramas and new friends; the world of sex, drugs, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, when all one requires is that perfect song on that perfect drive to feel infinite. But he can't stay on the sideline forever. Standing on the fringes of life offers a unique perspective. But there comes a time to see what it looks like from the dance floor.

a : a person who from shyness or unpopularity remains on the sidelines of a social activity (as a dance)
b : a shy or reserved person  

My Thoughts:
Fifteen-year-old Charlie is just beginning his freshman year of high school, a month after the suicide of his best friend, when he begins writing letters to an anonymous person, one he doesn't really know. Charlie is an extremely intelligent but extremely troubled young man who appears to suffer from schizophrenia, although that is never stated. Charlie is not close to his parents, brother or sister although he would like to be; they don't seem to understand him. When two seniors befriend Charlie and a teacher takes a special interest in him, Charlie is encouraged to begin experiencing life.

The Perks of Being A Wallflower is extremely popular with young people for having the courage to address very heavy subjects (molestation, sex, drug and alcohol use, rape) through the eyes of a teenager. By addressing these issue through an emotionally naive Charlie, Chobsky is able to look at these issues from a teenagers point of view in an unusual light. While Charlie observes things, he doesn't, as his friend Patrick says of him at one point "understand things."

This slim novel attempts to deal with a great many subjects, perhaps too many. And, to be honest, sometimes Charlie's voice really got on my nerves; it very often felt like he was much younger. Still, my heart often ached for Charlie and his friends. I understand why so many people love this book. It speaks to young people in a way that few books do, about subjects so many people try to shield them from when they are, every day, surrounded by them.

Thursday, July 4, 2013


Happy Fourth of July to all of my readers from the United States! 

Today is the day we celebrate the birth of our nation, our independence from Great Britain. We call it a revolution. That's not what they call it in Great Britain. Looking back nearly 240 years, we tend to have a glorified image of a united people who rise up against a repressive evil empire.

As we watch the uprisings across the Middle East, let's not be too quick to judge either those in power or those revolting. Those living in the colonies were  not united in their dislike of the British and revolutionaries were certainly not all saints nor were their motives all pure. Nathaniel Philbrick's Bunker Hill is an excellent resource for learning more about this time in our history. 


I'm glad the founding fathers and those who agreed with them pushed on despite the risk and the cost. For all of it's flaws, I still believe in the democratic system of government. I'm grateful that a group of people came together to create, as Abraham Lincoln noted almost one hundred years later, a "government of the people, by the people, for the people."

Monday, July 1, 2013

Together Tea by Marjan Kamali

Together Tea by Marjan Kamali
Published: May 2013 by HarperCollins Publishers
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher and TLC Book Tours in exchange for this review

Publisher's Summary:

Darya has discovered the perfect gift for her daughter's twenty-fifth birthday: an ideal husband. Mina, however, is fed up with her mother's endless matchmaking and grading of available Iranian American bachelors.

After Darya's last ill-fated attempt to find Mina a husband, mother and daughter embark on a journey to Iran, where the two women gradually begin to understand each other. But after Mina falls for a young man who never appeared on her mother's spreadsheets and Darya is tempted by an American musician, will this mother and daughter's tender appreciation for each other survive?  

My Thoughts:
For the first 88 pages of this book, I felt like I was reading chick lit, Persian style. Not necessarily what I was expecting (because, once again, I didn't remember what the book was about by the time I picked it up, I only remembered it had to do with Iran). But then, it's summer, so I figured something light would be just fine.

Then Mina and Darya return to Iran. Being back in Tehran brings memories washing over Mina, what it was like growing up in Iran under the Shah and through the revolution to the time Mina and her family were forced to flee Iran to protect her brothers from service in the war against Saddam Hussein.

You all know how much I enjoy books set in the Middle East so you're probably not surprised to learn that I really enjoyed the parts of this book set in Iran. I also enjoyed Kamali's exploration of the immigrant experience, looking at how people who immigrate might find themselves feeling like they have no place to call home any longer. Even after fifteen years, both Darya and Mina find they can't entirely feel at home in the United States. They miss family, foods, history and traditions. But when they return to Iran, they find they miss the freedom and opportunities they have left behind.

Eventually, Kamali brings readers back to the romance element of the book but by then I'd become interested enough in ethnic lessons I was learning to be able to go with the flow. Also, she had me so ready to head down to the Persian restaurant and I'm willing to forgive most flaws in a book if you've got me completely distracted by delicious sounding food!

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for including me in this tour. For more opinions on this book, check out the full tour

Marjan Kamali has an MFA in creative writing from New York University and an MBA from Columbia University. Her work has been a top finalist in Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open and the Asian American Short Story Contest. She lives in the Boston area with her husband and their two children. Visit Marjan at her website. You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter.