Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Watch Out! The Poetry of Murder Is A Trainwreck

(Book Image from Amazon.com)

In my long and distinguished (you can stop laughing now) career as a book reviewer, I don't think I've ever used the term "trainwreck" to describe a book. Well, if any volume deserves my first-time use of the label, it is The Poetry of Murder by Bernadette Steele. This murder mystery shows what results when flat characters; a weak, meandering plot; terrible editing; and generally poor writing collide. Let me tell ya folks, it ain't pretty.

The story involves Geneva Anderson, a 35-year-old poet, who finds her aunt dead on the floor of her office. It soon comes to light that Geneva's Aunt Victoria, director of the University of Chicago's International House, harbored more secrets than anyone ever guessed. For starters, she somehow accrued $10 million, much more money than she could have made at I-House. The money passes into Geneva's possession following Victoria's death, making Geneva a suspect in the murder. In an effort to clear her name, Geneva decides to solve the crime herself. She begans interviewing suspects, starting with a man who wept openly at Victoria's funeral despite the fact that he supposedly didn't know her well. The more digging Geneva does, the more secrets she uncovers. A disturbing portrait of Aunt Victoria emerges, forcing Geneva to ask herself if she knew her aunt at all. Victoria's secret doings earned her many enemies; Geneva must find out which one murdered her aunt before she, herself, is imprisoned for the crime.

I know, it doesn't sound so bad, right? The setting, especially, captured my interest. I had never heard of I-House, and was anxious to get a feel for life in the multicultural dorm (which Steele has experienced first-hand). Unfortunately, Steele's utilitarian description of I-House did nothing to make it come alive. That's my biggest complaint about the book, but I have many, many more. For one thing, Steele seems never to have heard the most popular writing advice ever - show, don't tell - because all she does is tell. I'm not kidding. The whole book features paragraphs like this:

Geneva returned from dinner to find Zain stitting outside of her door. They went into Geneva's room. Geneva stood with her hands on her waist as she opened her eyes and exhaled all of the air that she just inhaled. She knew that she was not really angry at Zain, but rather she was upset that Xavier was involved. (164)

Not only do the paragraphs read like an itinerary (first, we'll go to the post office, then the grocery store, then the library), but they are also flat, boring and awkwardly constructed. Dialogue often adds interest to dull text - not in this case, I'm afraid. The players speak in stilted, unnatural sentences that do nothing to advance plot or character development. And, speaking of characters ... flat as the proverbial pancake (although my pancakes are fluffy, so I don't get this particular comparison). Again, the telling versus showing drags down the story producing dull, lifeless characters who have no identity whatsoever. I couldn't remember who was who from one chapter to the next, and furthermore, I really didn't care. This book is the first in a series, and I really cannot imagine why anyone would want to read more about the dreary Geneva. A nice, suspenful plot can sometimes save a novel, but this one meanders all over the place, sprouting plotlines that never blossom. Furthermore, these dead ends have nothing whatsoever to do with the main plotline. Suspense never heightens properly, making the book's ending unsatisfactory, except in the fact that the torturous story is over. To all of these irritants, we must add the horrid editing. Typos litter the book, as well as numerous misuses of words (like "refuse" for "refuge," "pass" for "past," and "attenuate" for "accentuate"). Any interest I originally had in the book's setting disappeared under all of these other torments.

If I had picked this book up at the library, I would have abandoned it after the first couple of paragraphs. Because I reviewed it for an online publicist, I had to force myself to finish. After a couple of pages, I began looking at The Poetry of Murder as a rough draft, because really, that is what it most resembles. If only an editor or a good friend had advised Steele to flesh out her characters, smooth out her plotlines, and liven up her wording, this book wouldn't have been so bad. As is, it's a trainwreck.

Grade: D (and that's only because I thought the setting was unique and interesting)

Monday, April 28, 2008

Leif Enger No One Hit Wonder

As much as I love reading books by first-time novelists, the experience always makes me nervous. What if I love their debut effort, anxiously await their second, only to be disappointed? What if they, like so many writers, only have one great book in them? After all, do any of these names ring a bell - Harold Faltermeyer, Thomas Dolby, Baz Luhrmann or The Buggles? Probably not. They are all One Hit Wonders of the musical world. The literary world has their own versions (I was just too lazy to research them), although there are also some very well-known writers who only wrote one great novel (a la Harper Lee).

Anyway, all this is a rambling way of saying that I picked up Leif Enger's So Brave, Young and Handsome wondering if it could possibly measure up to the exceptional Peace Like A River (see my review here). Although I can't say I liked his sophomore effort better than his freshman, I can attest that Leif Enger is no One Hit Wonder.

Apparently, the author contemplated these same questions, because So Brave, Young and Handsome concerns a man trying to find his next, great story. When the book opens, it is 1915, five years after Monte Becket published his best-selling adventure novel, Martin Bligh. With his publisher waiting anxiously for his next manuscript, he's feeling pressure to produce. In fact, he's written seven novels - he just hasn't finished any of them. "I'm grateful for that," he says, "and you should be too" (1). Monte's publisher is losing faith in him; Monte, himself, has reached the disturbing truth that he is "a well-meaning failure, a pallid disappointer of persons, a man fading" (76).

As Monte sits on his dock, contemplating his failures, he sees a strange sight: A white-haired man standing in his row boat, who "lurched like old Quixote, hooting to himself" (2). His curiosity piqued, Monte sets out to discover the identity of the boatman who "appeared a bit elevated, early though it was" (2). He soon meets Glendon Hale, who regals Monte and his family with tales of adventure and derring-do. It's not long before the author realizes that his new friend hides a colorful past [he gets a hint when Glendon offers this riddle: "I have been four different times on trains that got robbed, yet never lost a dime" (12)]. Monte soon discovers the old boatbuilder's secret: he is wanted for train robbery and other crimes. He's also haunted by memories of the wife he abandoned, when he fled from the Pinkerton detectives who were hot on his trail. Although it's dangerous for a man on the run, Glendon is determined to travel to Mexico and make amends with his one true love. When the old man asks Monte to come along, he barely hesitates.

Soon, the pair are on an adventure to rival any Monte can concoct in his imagination. Chased by the stubborn Charles Siringo, a former Pinkerton carrying a burning grudge against Glendon, the two flee across the West. On the way, they will encounter cowboys and old Indians, sharpshooters and Hollywood headliners, hail and floods, and plenty of drifters with their own stories to tell. As Monte follows Glendon down every jeapordous trail, he learns as much about himself as he does about his friend. Far from his home and family, Monte confronts the questions that haunt him: Can he write another book? Or will he be stuck working at the post office forever? Will he ever feel successful again? Will his family know him after his desperate journey, when he can't even recognize himself? And, most important of all, can he find another story within himself?

So Brave, Young, and Handsome offers everything I loved about Peace Like A River - compelling characters, an exciting adventure story, and masterful writing - but it definitely stands on its own merits. The Old West setting seduces as it always will. Although Enger presents a dying West, where the likes of Billy the Kid, old Iron Tail, Pancho Villa, and Buffalo Bill Cody are only whispers on the dry wind, it still bursts with adventure and romance. The characters are rich and colorful, especially the likeable Glendon. The words Monte's fictional critics used to describe Martin Bligh work here as well, for So Brave, Young and Handsome is indeed "an enchanting and violent yarn spun in the brave hues of history" (6).

Monte's critics also labeled his masterpiece "disturbingly real" (5), and that describes Enger's novel as well. There is violence in the book (although not graphic enough to stop me from labeling this book a "Clean Read"), but the most disturbing aspect is really Enger's illumination of man's duplicitous nature. This is what makes characters like Glendon Hale and Charles Siringo so fascinating to read about.

It's ironic that So Brave, Young, and Handsome is narrated by a failed author, because his story captured me from the first sentence. I know it's getting cliche, but I have to say, this one had me at hello. With his sophomore effort, Leif Enger proves he's no One Hit Wonder. I, for one, urge him to keep the hits coming.

Grade: A

Note: In case you're curious, here are the musicians I named and their single hits:

Harold Faltermeyer (Axel F), Thomas Dolby (She Blinded Me With Science), Baz Luhrmann (Everybody's Free [to Wear Sunscreen]), & The Buggles (Video Killed the Radio Star). Information from vh1.com.

Book image from Amazon.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Cookin' the Books: Perin Family Buttermilk Cake

Opening Cooking with My Sisters by best-selling author Adriana Trigiani is like stepping into
the middle of her big, loud Italian family. You can hear her and her four sisters teasing each other, see the ghost of their exacting Grandmom, and feel the warmth of the Trigiani parents. Most of all, you can smell the food - baking lasagne, cooling pastries and stewing minestrone. It's enough to make you want to be a Trigiani, or at least an Italian.

Cooking with My Sisters is more text-heavy than most cookbooks, but it's a heck of a lot more entertaining. With her usual humor, Adriana Trigiani talks about her family's love affair with good, authentic Italian food. She also remembers her colorful family members, from her army-deserting great-grandfather to her spoiled, piano-playing father to her Grandmom, who ruled her kitchen with exactness. Viola Trigiani, Adriana's paternal grandmother (called Grandmom) gets a starring role in the memoir, because she was central to the girls' culinary education. Nicknamed "Grambo" because of her "direct, bombastic" (ix) personality and her skill with a rifle, she was "definitely a handful" (32). But, she (along with Adriana's maternal grandmother and her own mother) taught the Trigiani girls the secrets of delicious Italian meals. On of those secrets is to use the freshest ingredients possible. Viola also liked to use fresh ingredients creatively. I loved this vignette:

During the summers in Pennsylvania, if you saw Trigiani grandchildren running alongside the road, you knew Viola had them out collecting something. It was reminiscent of that scene in The Sound of Music in which the captain is driving home with the baroness (hiss) and sees all his children hanging from the big trees lining the roads. The only difference between us and the von Trapps is that they were having fun (151).

Even when she's talking about other, less colorful characters, Adriana Trigiani writes warmly, and with great love for her family, her heritage and, of course, her treasured family recipes. Honestly, it's as entertaining (if not more so) than her novels.

The recipes range from more difficult (homemade noodles) to less so (cakes and cookies), but they all rely on fresh ingredients. In fact, before you try any of the meals (especially those involving pasta), you should stock up on Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, as it is a Trigiani staple. Most of the recipes look delicious (I'm a little skeptical of the Dandelion Salad), and I'm anxious to try them all. There was only one, however, for which I had all of the ingredients, so here it is:

Perin Family Buttermilk Cake



1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour

1 1/2 c. (3 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into small bits and softened (but still chilled)
1/2 t. salt
3 c. sugar
2 t. baking powder
1 t. baking soda
3 eggs
1 t. vanilla extract
2 c. buttermilk

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Place the flour, butter, and salt in a large bowl.

In a second bowl, mix the sugar, baking powder, and baking soda. Add this mixture to the flour mixture. Combine, then measure out 1 cup and set aside.

Beat the eggs, vanilla, and buttermilk into the mixture.

Pour the batter into a greased and floured 9 x 12-inch cake pan. Sprinkle the reserved cup of flour-suagar mixture over the top of the batter. Bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, watching for the cake to turn a golden color.

Makes 12 servings.

My thoughts on the recipe: My husband and I both LOVE this cake. It's fantastic. It is more moist than most cakes, with a kind of cobbler/pudding cake consistency. I don't know how to describe it, but trust me, it's divine.

I also really enjoyed this cookbook. The memoir aspect is perfect - Adriana Trigiani's stories are warm, funny and lighthearted. The recipes are varied and look scrumptious. My only complaint is that they don't include nutrition facts (probably because we're better off not knowing). Other than that, Cooking with My Sisters is a treasure. I loved it.

Grade: A



Cookin' the Books: Barbara Hahn's Berried Medley Lemon Streusel Muffins

Inspired by the Soup's On Challenge and the recipe-laden books I have been reading lately, I've decided to try out a new feature: Cookin' the Books. This is where I try a recipe from a book and let you know how it turned out. I'm not the greatest cook in the world, so this may be more of a comic feature than anything else. We'll see ...

I'm going to start with a recipe that appeared in Karen MacInerney's murder mystery, Dead and Berried (see my review here).

Barbara Hahn's Berried Medley Lemon Streusel Muffins

Streusel Topping

1/4 c. melted butter

1/2 c. flour

2 T. sugar

1 1/2 t. finely shredded lemon peel

Muffins

2 1/2 c. flour

2 t. baking powder

1 t. baking soda

1 1/3 c. sugar

1 T. finely shredded lemon peel

1 egg

1 c. buttermilk

1/2 c. melted butter

1 T. lemon juice

1 1/2 c. (about 6 oz.) frozen berry medley (strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, and red raspberries) slightly thawed

1 T. flour

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Stir all streusel ingredients together in a small bowl to form a soft crumbly dough. Set aside.

Whisk dry muffin ingredients and lemon peel together in medium-sized bowl. In a separate medium bowl, combine all liquid ingredients. Add in dry ingredients and stir until almost fully incorporated.

Cut slightly thawed large berries in pieces. Leave small berries whole. Toss berries with 1 tablespoon flour to coat, then gently fold into dough, handling only enough to incorporate berries.

Line large muffin tin with paper muffin liners. Fill each muffin tin 1/4 inch from top. You will only use 9 out of 12 muffin holders. Fill empty muffin holders with water to 1/2 inch full.

Crumble streusel topping over each. Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake for anther 10 minutes, or until lightly browned and muffin springs back when pressed lightly with fingertips. Cool for 5 minutes in muffin tin and then serve on platter.

Makes 9 large muffins.

My thoughts on the recipe: These were good, although I usually like sweeter muffins. I liked the streusel topping, but I think I will add more sugar to it next time.

Since I didn't have a "jumbo muffin tin," I used a regular-sized one and filled the cups as full as I had to to use all of the batter. They ran over, so it's probably important to use the tin size suggested in the recipe :) I have to say, though, I'm glad the muffins ran over because they formed a sort of crisp muffin top, which I LOVED. It tasted sort of like a toasted VitaTop, except with more sugar and less fiber. Yum.

If I had to rate the recipe and the result (keeping in mind that I'm not the best baker), I would give it a B. Try it and let me know what you think.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Journey From Head to Heart Just Not My Cup of Tea

Do you ever feel as if you're not living the life you're meant to be living? Do you feel as if outside stressors are shoving you in a direction you don't want go? If so, you may want to check out Nancy Oelklaus' new book, Journey from Head to Heart: Living and Working Authentically. Using neuroscience mingled with scriptures, she shows readers how to free themselves from disparate voices and listen to their inner Voice. Adherence to the Voice (intuition, the Holy Ghost, the soul, whatever you want to call it) ensures that individuals live their most authentic lives.

If it sounds confusing, it is a little. As I read, I found myself wondering if I was living an authentic life or not. I was hoping for a quiz I could take that would answer this question, but all I found were confusing graphs showing The Energy Analysis, which didn't make any sense to me. Figuring I could probably stand to live more authentically anyway, I tried to figure out how to do it. Oelklaus gives some guidelines: rid yourself of pain through forgiveness; be still and open yourself to whisperings from the Voice; focus on making choices for yourself, not just to please other people; and send out good vibes (or mirror neurons). What she doesn't give is a specific plan, with concrete steps. She does provide several interesting tools, some of which I liked (the idea of The Circle, with desired traits inside and undesirables outside), others of which were way too corny (talking to a childhood photo of yourself or writing yourself love letters).

I didn't find a lot of new information in Oelklaus' book, but I did like her idea of cultivating stillness in your life. Like the author, I think we are all so overstimulated by tv, Internet, music, video games, etc. that we never really stop to listen to our inner voices. She says, "if people could just get still, something inside their brains would tell them what to do next" (19).
Overall, this was a difficult read for me. It was so dense that I found myself skipping through sections to get to the "good stuff." There were some valuable insights, but I found most of her techniques to be too vague for me. I guess I was hoping for someway to discern whether or not I was living as authentically as I could, and then a plan to show me the way to more authentic living. Perhaps I am supposed to be finding those answers from the Voice. Or perhaps I'm just so tired that I missed the point completely.

Journey from Head to Heart received glowing reviews on Amazon, so it's definitely worth checking out. It just wasn't my cup of tea.



Grade: C


Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Dead and Berried Satisfies

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

I've realized that in order for me to enjoy a cozy mystery, I have to remind myself what I am reading. I have to tell myself not to expect complicated plots; deep characterization; realistic events; or heavy drama. A cozy is by definition (albeit my definition, not Webster's) light, fun entertainment. By willingly suspending my disbelief (because face it, few real world chefs/B&B proprietors/caterers/scrapbook store owners, etc. find dead bodies every month), I allow myself to sit back and savor these light mysteries.

So, when I picked up Karen MacInerney's Dead and Berried (the second in her A Gray Whale Inn Mystery series), I steeled myself. Then, I read. And enjoyed. In fact, I liked it better than its predecessor, Murder on the Rocks (see my review here). I think it's because of the ghost story threaded through this one, but I'm getting ahead of myself ...

Dead and Berried takes us back to Cranberry Island, Maine, the site of Natalie Barnes' 150-year-old Gray Whale Inn. As usual, Natalie's up to her neck in trouble. She's got the daily task of keeping her business afloat, coupled with the possibility of a subdivision cropping up next to her B&B, complicated by the fact that she vehemently opposes any construction that will put Maine's wildlife in danger. Her opinion makes her unpopular with Reverend McLaughlin, a recent transplant who's dating her best friend Charlene, as well as with the developers who are combing the island. Those issues are enough to keep her busy, but wait, there's more: her ex-fiancee shows up unexpectedly, promising to buy her a quaint B&B in Texas in exchange for her hand in marriage; she's feuding with Charlene; there's a chatty blonde watching her every move; and then there's the little problem of the ghost in her attic. To top it all off, Polly, her housekeeper, has disappeared, leaving Natalie with mountains of laundry to do. As if she didn't have enough on her plate! When soiled linens threaten to take over the entire inn, Natalie goes in search of her lost help. What she discovers is Polly lying dead in a bog with a gun in her hand and a hole in her chest.

Once again, Natalie has discovered a body, putting her back in the clutches of chain-smoking Sergeant Grimes. The bumbling cop declares Polly's death suicide, but Natalie's not so sure. For one thing, the woman had fresh berries and milk in her fridge. For another, she left a dozen cats to fend for themselves, an admission completely out of character for the feline-loving Polly. Knowing Grimes won't investigate the death as murder, Natalie channels her inner Nancy Drew once again. While she's poking into Polly's affairs (Why were 2 shots fired from Polly's gun when she only needed 1 to kill herself? Why was there a half-packed suitcase on her bed?), another island resident ends up dead. Suddenly, Natalie finds herself as Sergeant Grimes' prime suspect.

She's also quickly becoming the target of a cold-blooded murderer. If she doesn't find the killer she may end up in jail, or worse. Of course, considering the state of her life, she may also find herself homeless, penniless and loveless. Once again, she must pick apart the island's secrets to save herself and her beloved B&B. Oh yeah, and she really needs to take care of her ghost before she drives herself insane.

As you can see, this is another fun, fast-paced mystery from Karen MacInerney. There's a lot going on in the book, which makes it kind of a whirlwind, but I thought the mysteries were solved in a less predictable manner than in Murder on the Rocks. There were a few little things that bugged me, like the fact that the boatwright's name is spelled Eleazer in the first book, and Eliezer in Dead and Berried; and the lack of chemistry between Natalie and Benjamin; as well as a general choppiness to the writing; but overall, I enjoyed it.

Culinary cozies generally don't float my boat, but this series satisfies. For me, it's a delicious romp that gets better with each book.

P.S. The recipes in the back of the book look scrumptious. I'm going to try Barbara Hahn's Berried Medley Lemon Streusel Muffins as soon as I get the ingredients from the store :)

Grade: B

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Truth Rings A Little False


Are there truths girls learn in childhood that evaporate as they enter adulthood? Are there nuggets of wisdom they glean from their mothers that disappear when they have children of their own? Is there a way to remember this wisdom so that mothers can improve relationships with their own daughters? Psychologist Barbara Becker Holstein thinks the answers to all of these questions is a resounding yes.

Dr. Barbara's new book, The Truth (I'm A girl, I'm smart and I know everything), uses the fictional diary of an anonymous 10-year-old girl to spread her "psychological messages about happiness." The book is meant to open communication between tween girls and their mothers. As such, it achieves its goal, but Dr. Barbara's purpose is so obvious that what could have been a sweet and entertaining narrative turns preachy pretty darn quick.

Between the pages of her diary, we meet a vibrant little girl whose voice is honest and sure. Her world isn't perfect - she's got a body that's changing, parents who fight too much, a boy she's trying to impress, and girls who giggle at her behind her back. Despite these uncertainties, there are some things she knows for sure, and plenty she could teach her parents, if they would only listen. Her observations are in turn funny, cocky, wise, and heartbreaking. Not all of it rings true (Do 10-year-olds really dream about skinny dipping with boys?), but the majority of it probably could have been written by a young girl (although it sounds more like a 12-year-old than a 10-year-old).

Like I mentioned, my biggest issue with this book is that it comes off as preachy, at least to an adult. I understand what Dr. Barbara is trying to do in this Are You There God, It's Me Margaret?-like story, and I think it and the questions at the back of the book will provide plenty for mothers and daughters to discuss, but I wonder if girls will find it authentic or not. For one thing, it seems dated. I know Dr. Barbara is trying to connect generations of women, so perhaps she purposely mentioned things like Brownie cameras and Nancy Drew, but since there are no dates in the diary, these details come off weirdly. Also, the narrator seems a little mature for 10. A child that young obsessing about boys, breasts, and menstruating rings untrue for me. I could be the one who is dated, but I think the book would have been more authentic with an older narrator. Still, I think The Truth will resound with young girls navigating the choppy waters of burgeoning adolesence.

This book fits squarely into Dr. Barbara's philosophy of The Enchanted Self. She encourages using "positive states of mind, body and spirit" as a way of "recognizing the heroine within yourself." Part of this recognition is acknowleding that "your own personal memories contain not only your history of the story of your life, but there is a wealth of wisdom with which to reinvent yourself again and again." To this end, she recommends mining your past - especially truths gleaned in childhood - to "find coping skills, ability, talent and lost potential." Interesting. Check out her website for more information.


In conclusion, I have to say that tween readers can surely find better fiction on the library shelves, but The Truth is worth reading. It's definitely a story with a message, but it's not a bad story, and it could definitely open lines of communication between mothers and daughters whose relationships are often rocky. Basically, the message is listen, and that's a morale we can all use.


Grade: B -





Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Photograph's Truths Are In Its Details

Who was Kath Peters, really? That's the question everyone is asking in Penelope Lively's The Photograph. Answers will vary, based on who's asking, but one fact will emerge - Kath hid plenty behind her pretty face.

Soon after her death, Kath's husband Glyn finds an envelope marked, "Don't Open. Destroy." Inside lies a snapshot. Glyn doesn't recognize the setting, but he spies his wife holding hands with another man, a man who is, in fact, her brother-in-law. The image "smolders in its envelope, and in his head" (16), forcing him to face the fact that he didn't know his own wife. This "unreliability about my own past" (98) shakes him to his core. He deals with the problem in the way he knows best. As a historian, Glyn has done plenty of research, so he turns his investigative skills to the subject of his marriage. His search consumes him, but this is "par for the course; Glyn does obsession, always has, a five-star capacity for obsession is what makes him a painstaking researcher" (115).

As part of his quest, Glyn confronts those who knew Kath best - her sister, Elaine; Elaine's husband, Nick; Nick's business partner, Oliver; and Kath's closest friend, Mary Packard. Each of their voices, as well as that of Polly, Nick and Elaine's daughter, offer one piece of the puzzle that was Kath. Ultra-responsible Elaine remembers only her frustration with her irresponsible younger sister. Nick, who has "remained in a time warp of feckless adolescence" (182) can't understand why Elaine cares about his long-ago fling with her sister. Oliver wants only to put the past behind him. He regrets both taking and saving the damning photo. Ironically, Mary Packard, the one who spent the least time with Kath, is the only one with any real answers. While the others saw only Kath's pretty face, the fine features which allowed her to float through life shunning all responsibility, Mary heard the woman's secrets and desires. Mary's morale is a familiar one: Things are not always what they seem.

This novel is so difficult to describe because it isn't a story as much as it is a series of character studies. Basically, Lively takes a situation - Kath's infidelity - and examines how each person reacts to it. She mines their psyches to make statements about grief, identity, marriage and love. The result is a melancholy novel populated with sad, bitter people who can't get over the death of the only person (apparently) who brought any light to their lives. The story is depressing, really, although I also found it surprisingly compelling.

Although The Photograph feels dark and brooding, I found the writing quite beautiful. It's haunting, to be sure, but also rich and evocative. While scrutinizing his marriage, Glyn observes that "It is the subtexts that signify, the alternative stories that lurk beyond the narrative" (22). The same could be said of this novel - its truths are in the details. I thought a lot about this book, but I can't say I really enjoyed it.

Grade: B-

Friday, April 18, 2008

Bikini Season Skimps On Originality

(Image from Amazon)

If there are two subjects women know, they are friendship and food. Numerous authors have combined these themes and come up with charming, even moving, narratives. Unfortunately, Sheila Roberts is not one of them. Her newest book, Bikini Season, suffers from flat, stereotypical characters; endless cliches; and a predictable plot. I've read (and seen on the movie screen) this same story a million times. Not that it doesn't have its charming spots, but overall, Bikini Season doesn't bring anything fresh or new to the chick lit/romance scene.

The story features four women - Erin, Kizzy, Megan and Angela - who form the Teeny Bikini Diet Club to help each other lose weight. Each woman is slimming down for a different reason: Erin wants to fit into her wedding dress; Kizzy needs a better doctor's report; Megan longs to sculpt a body that matches her keen mind; and Angela has only one aim: to keep her husband. Together, they whip up healthy food, sweat it out with Dance, Dance Revolution, and help each other with all the doubts, frustration and hard work that comes with losing weight. Their goal? To don bikinis on July Fourth in celebration of their new bodies.

Of course, no one's journey to skinny is the same, and these women are no different. While dealing with their own unique issues, each woman learns their own valuable lessons. Erin's best laid plans crumble when faced with a stressful job and a cheapskate fiancee. Trips to Safeway for chips and salsa only bring her more anxiety, since it means facing extra calories and dorky Dan Rockwell, who never misses a chance to harp on her Prince Charming. It doesn't help that his presence sends zings up and down her body. Does Dan have a point? Is Erin marrying the right man? Kizzy has to deal with her meat-and-potatoes lovin' husband, who sabotages her diet at every turn. How can she get him on board so they can both get healthier? Megan's law firm is filled with "pencils" - thin, attractive women who seem to reel in clients with a mere flutter of their eyelashes. Megan's competing with them for a partnership - but can her brains beat out their beauty? Or will she have to abandon her morals to get ahead? Angela's dismay begins when her husband hands her a snapshot of her at an office party. In the photo, her frumpy self is seated next to his skinny, cute assistant. Angela gets the message loud and clear - obviously her husband prefers his hot co-worker over his plus-size wife. Or is she just being paranoid? She launches a sure fire plan to win him back - a plan that includes pole-dancing lessons and goodies from Victoria's Secret - but is it enough to keep him content at home? Or will she drive him away with her distrust?

Ultimately, the most important question is: Do the Teeny Bikinis succeed in their weight loss goals? Or, is the weight really that important in the long run? Each character will have her own answer.

I think the idea behind this novel is solid (if familiar), but the plot is so cliche, so predictable that it drowns out all of the book's originality. The characters are one-dimensional paper dolls, who act in ways exactly prescribed by their stereotypes - Kizzy, for instance, is an African-American woman who talks like a Southern preacher (the novel is set in Washington State), worships Oprah, fears her Mama and the church ladies, and eats okra (c'mon, no one in Washington eats okra!); Erin's fiancee is a control freak who monitors what she eats, how she spends, and who she sees; Angela is a typical hot-blooded Italian, who lives and loves with passion. The characters say nothing unique, do nothing surprising, and are, thus, instantly forgettable.

The plot of Bikini Season suffers from the same kind of predictability. Erin's storyline provides the best example. From the moment she encounters Dan Rockwell, it's obvious what is going to happen. It's so apparent, that I guessed the exact (cheesy, unrealistic, wholly unoriginal) way her wedding would end. Angela's story is also completely predictable. The question of her husband's "affair" is resolved in the most cliched way possible. Surely, there are other ways to explore these issues!

My big problems with Bikini Season lie in the characterization and plotting. The writing, in general, is not bad. In fact, there were places where I laughed out loud in surprise or delight. One of my favorite scenes is the one in which Angela whips up some low-fat caro cookies. The recipe is printed out, but the directions trail off when Angela dumps the inedible dough into the trash. I laughed as she proceeds to make luscious, fat-filled chocolate chip cookies, only to hide them in the dryer when Erin appears on her doorstep. Still, the unfinished recipe is the clever part of the scene. I also like Kizzy's observation that, "It was one thing to have a body like Queen Latifah. It was quite another to have one like three Queen Latifahs put together. And she was already about a Queen and a half" (19). I enjoyed these bright spots - I was just disappointed that they were so few and far between. The other thing I like about this book is the healthy recipes in the back. Dishes like "Angela's Tomato and Mozzarella Salad" and "Angela's Lemon Parfaits" look tasty, and include nutritional fact, including Weight Watchers Points.

I'm a Washington girl (born and bred), so I really wanted to like this one from Bremertonian Sheila Roberts. Unfortunately, any originality in this book sinks under cliche and predictability. Even its quaint Washington setting isn't enough to save it. I think Bikini Season would benefit from a good diet that strips off all its extra weight, leaving readers with a simple, slimmed-down story about those two female staples - friendship and food.

Grade: C

Deadly Enterprise Offers Perfect Escape From Painful Reality

Alternate realities and gun-toting secret agents usually aren't my thing, so I was surprised by how much I enjoyed reading Deadly Enterprise by Canadian author Christopher Hoare. I
mentioned that I started reading it in the E.R., and I have to say, it provided the perfect escape from my painful reality.

The story revolves around Gisel Matah, a lieutenant from Iskander, a progressive society on a futuristic Earth. Because of a blip in their space/time travel plans, Gisel's people find themselves trapped in the 17th Century on an alternate Earth called Gaia. Since it's impossible for the Iskanders to return to their own land, they aim to improve Gaia with their advanced knowledge and inventions. Not everyone is happy about the plan, especially the ruling Trigons, another people stranded in a foreign land. To help persuade the higher-ups to oust the Trigons, the Iskanders form a partnership with banker Yohan Felger. The young man has contacts in the enemy city of Lubitz, so he and Gisel set out together to appeal to the city's leaders. Gisel's reputation (her reckless bravery has earned her the nickname "Wildcat") makes her a target for all kinds of enemies, so she passes herself off as Yohan's male bodyguard.

Journeying side by side means that Gisel and Yohan must learn to work together. They are an unlikely pair - Gisel is a hardened military woman, reared in an age when women have as many rights as men, while Yohan is a gentleman from a time when women submitted to men or faced the consequences. While Yohan finds Gisel's aggressive nature appalling, he also comes to respect her cunning and skill. Gisel teases the refined Yohan about his lack of street smarts, but acknowledges he is the kindest, gentlest man she's ever known. Predictably, the two discover they are attracted to each other, although they have little time to think about romance. There's also the little problem of Yohan's betrothal and Gisel's ex-boyfriend, who longs for a reconciliation.

When the pair finally reach Lubitz, they find a town in confusion. Gisel knows the tide of opinion can be turned in favor of Iskander aid if only she can speak to the right people. But, Lubitz is under siege by the formidabble Trigons, and no one knows who to trust. Her new mission is fraught with danger. Can Gisel convince the right people before it's too late? Will her disguise keep her safe from her enemies? Most importantly (to me, anyway), will Gisel and Yohan find happiness together? Or will their differences keep them apart?

Deadly Enterprise moves along steadily, with a plot driven by constant action. The characters are likeable, if not super original. Gisel makes an appealing leading lady, with her tough exterior and compassionate heart. Yohan suits her, although their companionship is sedate and lacking the fire one would expect from a woman as passionate as the Wildcat. The supporting cast is large and thus, confusing, with few members really standing out. Still, action rules the day in the book, and that's what makes it such an entertaining read. When I first read the book's description, I thought it was a sci fi/techno type thriller, but it's really more of an adventure story. Fans of both should find something to their liking in Deadly Enterprise. Iskander enthusiasts (of which I am one) will want to follow Gisel on her next adventure in Wildcat's Victory.

So, if you're planning a trip to the E.R. anytime soon, you might as well take along a book that will keep your mind off your own reality. I recommend Christopher Hoare's Deadly Enterprise.

Grade: B


Wednesday, April 16, 2008

In Search of Molly Pitcher an Entertaining Little Mystery

(Image from Amazon)

When you think of Revolutionary War heroes, the name Molly Pitcher probably doesn't enter your mind. In fact, if you're like me, you've never even heard of her. If that's the case, do yourself a favor and pick up Linda Grant De Pauw's In Search of Molly Pitcher. You'll be hooked from the first page.

The story follows 12-year-old Peggy McAllister, an overachiever on a mission to win the Rattletop Award. Each year, the prize is given to an eighth grader who shows excellence in social studies. So, when Peggy's teacher announces that each student will be writing a research paper, which can then be entered into the contest, she vows to craft a paper that will wow the judges. Her classmates choose the same old standbys - Thomas Jefferson, Neil Armstrong, Harriet Tubman - but Peggy knows she needs a subject that will stand out. So, against her teacher's recommendation, she chooses Molly Pitcher.

Little is known about the woman who took over at the cannon when her husband was killed during the Battle of Monmouth. According to legend, she received the nickname "Molly Pitcher" because she carried a pitcher of water to thirsty soldiers. Thus, Peggy finds herself researching various women, all of whom could be the famous heroine. It's a frustrating quest, but it's also the perfect challenge for the determined Peggy. With the help of her Greatgramps, a retired private eye; and an eccentric writer named Mrs. Spinner, she digs into the mystery with relish. If she can just find some real evidence, she knows the Rattletop Award will be hers.

As she searches diaries, newspapers and other sources, Peggy runs into roadblock after roadblock. By the time her paper is due, Peggy has enough information to write her own book, but can she pull it together enough to win the award? Can she even prove that Molly Pitcher was real? Or will her search for answers end in even more questions?

Although the book sometimes feels more like a manual on "How to Write a Research Paper," In Search of Molly Pitcher is an entertaining little mystery. The characters are unique and interesting. Nerds everywhere will love Peggy, an unpopular girl who refuses to submit to the mediocrity her teacher demands. My personal favorite is Greatgramps, a feisty senior citizen who drives (only if his destination is less than 3 miles roundtrip) an old VW decorated with bumper stickers that must always be "balanced" (like his "I Love Jesus" sticker, which is tempered by one that declares "Born Again Pagan"). Molly Pitcher, of course, becomes one of the main characters as well. Her story (or legend) makes her just as fascinating as Peggy and her contemporaries. While the story gets a bit bogged down with research procedures and facts, the characters save it from becoming too dull. You'll be drawn to Peggy & Co. as they play detective to unearth the truth behind one of history's most elusive women.

Grade: B

Readers Make the Best Waiters

Due to what I thought was appendicitis, I got to spend a torturous 6 hours a pleasant evening in the E.R. on Tuesday night. The upside is that I had lots of time to read. One of the nurses that helped me said, "You have been my best patient tonight. You're so laidback, just reading your book and going with the flow." I could hear a little kid wailing down the hall and a druggie shrieking for more water, so I probably didn't have a lot of competition in the patient department, but her comment made me remember a conversation I had with my endocrinologist last week. He apologized for keeping me waiting. I replied, "Oh, it's okay, I've got a good book." We then discussed the fact that readers make the best waiters. He told me a story about going to the DMV on his day off to get his son's car registered. When a clerk informed him it would be an hour wait, he happily settled in to read the book he'd brought along. Fifteen minutes later, the DMV employee handed him his paperwork. The clerk was shocked at his obvious disappointment when he cried, "What? I thought I was going to have an hour to wait!"

I'm still in a bit of a Percoset haze, so I'm not sure this post is making sense, but my point is: I must be book-crazed, because I actually didn't mind all the waiting at the hospital (at least not the first 4 hours or so). What do you think? Are you like me and my endocrinologist, who sort of look forward to waiting because it means more time to read?

As I was hobbling out the door, clutching my stomach in agony heading out the door for the hospital, I grabbed 2 novels out of my growing mountain of review books. I enjoyed both In Search of Molly Pitcher by Linda Grant De Pauw, which I finished, and Deadly Enterprise by Christopher Hoare, which I'm still reading. Reviews to follow!

By the way, I'm feeling a little bit better. I was supposed to take 1 Percoset every 4 hours yesterday, but I took 1 total and was out for the entire day. My head still feels foggy. According to the doctor, my pain should fade over the next day or so, so I'm laying off the Percoset and going with straight Tylenol. Hopefully, that will do the trick. In the meantime, I'm gritting my teeth and trying to be patient ... with a book in my hands, of course!

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Home to Big Stone Gap A Decent (if not terribly exciting) Conclusion to One of My Favorite Series

(Image from Amazon)

Reading Home to Big Stone Gap, the final installment of Adriana Trigiani's best-selling series, is a lot like visiting my small hometown after a long absence. I return expecting things to be the same, only to find town has filled with strangers, houses have popped up where they didn't exist before, and my family's longtime neighbor has stopped walking her daily circuits because she died three years ago. When I picked up this book, I honestly could not remember the last time I visited Big Stone Gap. Even after reading Amazon's summaries of the previous books in the series, I only half-remembered them. Still, I started reading, and guess what? The magic of small town Virginia encompassed me, and it felt as if I had never left. Well, okay, I felt more like an amnesiac returning, remembering the magic of a place, and using patchy gossip to fill in the details. But still ...

Home to Big Stone Gap could be read as a standalone, but if you haven't read this series, you really should. Adriana Trigiani has a way of bringing people and places to life that really make her books a pleasure. I have to warn you that the following review may contain SPOILERS, not from this book, but from the first books in the series. I hate SPOILERS, but I'm not sure how to talk about the series' finale without giving away some of the things that have happened along the way. So, YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

When we last saw Ave Marie MacChesney, she and her husband Jack Mac were in Italy celebrating (well Jack was celebrating, Ave Marie was sulking) the marriage of their daughter to Stephano. After the wedding, Ave Marie returns to her empty house in Big Stone Gap, where she slips into a blue funk. She misses her daughter, sees visions of her dead son in the woods, and wallows in all the recent losses in her life. When Jack Mac's health takes a frightening turn, she finds herself confronting her own mortality and questioning her ability to cope as a widow. Like its residents, Ave Marie's hometown is also crumbling under "the aging process" (25) - she takes it as one more sign that her secure, happy life is falling apart.

Still, Ave Marie presses on as she always has. After all, she's got her job at the pharmacy, where cranky old Fleeta (I imagine her as Maxine, with her sour face and a cigarette dangling from her lips) keeps things exciting. Then Nellie Goodloe appears clad in a tacky Halloween cardigan and offering a challenge Ave Marie can't refuse - she agrees to direct the community's production of Sound of Music. A surprise wedding and a holiday visit from her best friend, Theodore Tipton, keep Ave Marie's mind off weightier matters. But, worry still lingers. After all, Jack Mac's health is still fragile. Plus, there's a stranger in town who's making Ave Marie's best friend Iva Lou edgy. Obviously, she's harboring a secret, one which could tear their friendship apart. Then, the appearance of some old flames makes Ave Marie's heart skip a few (hundred) beats. Just to complicate everything even more, Jack Mac's got the crazy idea of playing consultant for a strip mining company. The tension, combined with Ave Marie's melancholy, threatens to tear her soul apart. In the end, she has to find her place - in her family, in her hometown, and in her own skin.

Like the rest of the books in this series, Home to Big Stone Gap radiates warmth and charm. The characters are well-drawn, quirky but not over-the-top. They're strong, sympathetic and lovable. Situations are realistic, often hilarious, and sometimes heart-breaking. Ave Marie provides a funny, spirited narrator who examines every nuance in her friends, her husband and her little town. She's always delightful to "chat" with. This book brings back those same qualities, but it carries a more melancholy air than its predecessors. I found it more atmospheric, more dramatic, and more sentimental. The plot seemed a little random, especially the Scotland trip that's tacked on to the end of the story. Still, you can't help but fall in love with Big Stone Gap and the characters that Trigiani's talent brings to life. Home to Big Stone Gap isn't her best novel, but it's still a decent read and a worthy (if not terribly exciting) conclusion to one of my favorite series.

Grade: B

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Hattie Big Sky As Authentic As Montana Itself

(Image from Amazon)

Fans of historical fiction (especially books like Nancy Turner's These Is My Words) will find Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson as warm and familiar as an old quilt. It's certainly not the first book to feature a strong woman pioneer striking out west on her own. Still, Larson brings a fresh, young voice as well as a vibrant setting to the table. The result? Hattie Big Sky offers the same comforting patchwork, but with a unique pattern and some bright, new colors. The combination wins a Blue Ribbon in my book.

The year is 1917. Headlines across the world scream news of war. On the homefront, women and girls are busily knitting socks for the soldiers, pouring out their hearts in letters and praying for the boys' swift return. For 16-year-old Hattie Inez Brooks, the war is just another bump in her hardscrabble life. After her parents' death, Hattie bounced around from relative to relative, finally landing in Arlington, Iowa, where she now lives under the ever-critical eye of Aunt Ivy. For "Hattie Here-and-There" home is as elusive as faraway France, where the war has dumped her good friend Charlie (he's only a friend, as everyone knows he's sweet on Mildred Powell). She writes him letters, but it's just not the same as practicing pitching and collecting wishing stones with her buddy.

So, when Hattie receives a posthumous letter from her mysterious Uncle Chester, leaving her "my claim and the house and its contents, as well as one steadfast horse named Plug and a contemptible cow known as Violet" (9), she jumps at the chance to start a new life. Despite a lack of "agricultural expertise," (10) Hattie boards a train headed for Wolf Point, Montana. From the grimy windows of the train, she can see only an "endless stretch of snow" (14). Her first steps on the frozen ground are not encouraging; when she sees Uncle Chester's house, she realizes "House was a Charlie term - kind and generous" (37). The structure is scarcely more than a slapped-together shed. With characteristic determination, Hattie sets about making the place her own. According to homesteading law, she has 10 months to "prove up" her claim by fencing her land and cultivating crops. It's a daunting task, but she means to do it.

Salvation comes in the form of Hattie's neighbors. She quickly becomes attached to the Muellers, a German-American family that helps her through all manner of difficulties. She also has the olfactory-challenged Rooster Jim, prairie nurse Leafie, and the disarmingly handsome Traft Martin, whose attentions may be more curse than blessing. With neighborly support and hard work, Hattie wrestles obstinate farm animals; fences her property; learns to cook; and defends her claim with pride. Hard times do not pass her by, of course. Her friendship with the Muellers brings her heat from the Dawson County Council of Defense, a group of ranchers bent on persecuting anyone of German descent. As if that wasn't bad enough, a bout of Spanish influenza steals lives, and the weather brings constant worries. If Hattie's crops don't flourish, she will lose her claim. As she battles the land to prove her claim, she must also fight to save the only real home she has ever known.

Montana's omnipresence in the novel makes it as much a character as anyone else, but Hattie Big Sky really isn't about the land. Sure, it's an adventure story, with enough coyote encounters, wild horse stampedes, tough cowboys and dangerous rabble rousers to keep the reader turning pages, but at its heart it's a story about home, family and identity. The most important transformation in the book has nothing to do with the landscape, and everything to do with Hattie herself. As she progresses from "Hattie-Here-and-There" to "Wolf Point Hattie Homesteader" to "Hattie Big Sky," she learns the truths that will make her whole. Whether or not she proves up her claim (and I'm not going to give you any hint as to how the story ends), Hattie discovers what's really important: home, family and "proving up on my life" (146).

There were a few things I wanted out of this book that it didn't deliver (namely, more of a backstory for Hattie and answers to Uncle Chester's mysteries), but overall, it was well-written and engaging. Although the period details seemed contrived at times, I enjoyed reading about Montana in the early 1900s. Perhaps because my father spent his boyhood in Montana (only 20-some years after this novel is set), and I grew up hearing stories about his family's experience there, this story really rang true to me. The plot isn't all that unique, but Hattie Big Sky is a book that's as authentic as the land it celebrates, as vibrant as its one constant - that big old Montana sky.

Grade: A

Monday, April 07, 2008

Rah, Rah, Siscoom Bah, YAY Book Bloggers!

As I've mentioned before, I have hundreds of book blogs on my feeds list. Some of them I check as soon as I see they've been updated, others I glance at when I get the chance, still others I drop in on only once in a blue moon. The Six LDS Writers and A Frog blog is one of those blue moon ones, but I happened to read a post a few months ago in which author Jeffrey S. Savage asked for hints on how to promote his new fantasy series. Numerous people said, "Send out ARCs and let people review them on their blogs." Being the smart guy that he is, Mr. Savage is doing just that. If you're interested in participating in his Find Your Magic Farworld 2008 Blog Tour, check this out. I think it's a fabulous idea.

Just a note: I've never read anything by Jeffrey S. Savage, so he could totally suck. His books could also be really "Mormony" - I don't know. Karlene over at Inksplasher recommends him, and I'm up for reading just about anything. Really, I'm just thrilled that more and more writers are recognizing the power of book bloggers. Go Team!

Anna Quindlen: A Kindred Spirit

Not everyone understands my obsession with books and reading, so it's nice when I discover kindred spirits. After reading Anna Quindlen's essay (I hesitate to call this slim volume a "book") How Reading Changed My Life, I know I've "met" one of these like-minded folks.

I'm going to go ahead and admit it right now - Quindlen doesn't say anything new about books and reading. Her words are not mind-blowing or even especially unique. I'm not even sure her observations warrant the dramatic title she gave them. Still, I enjoyed reminiscing with her as she described her lifelong love affair with the written word. It began for her like it did for many of us - as a child. Quindlen describes a big club chair that sat in the living room of her childhood home; she spent lots of time "sprawled in it, reading with my skinny, scabby legs slung over one of its arms" (5). Despite her mother's efforts to push Anna outdoors, she says, "The best part of me was always at home, within some book that had been laid flat on the table to mark my place, its imaginary people waiting for me to return and bring them to life" (5).

In subsequent chapters, Quindlen writes about the history of books, the banning of books, and the future of "real" books in our computer-dominated age. I despise reading books on the computer, so I appreciated this observation:

A laptop computer is a wondrous thing; it is inconceivable to me
now that I ever did without one ... But a computer is no substitute for a
book. No one wants to take a computer to bed at the end of a long day, to
read a chapter or two before dropping off to sleep ... No one wants to pass
Heidi on disk down to their daughter on the occasion of her eighth birthday
... (63-64)

No book on reading would be complete without a discussion of the various ways readers get lost in books. Quindlen describes how books saved her sanity after endless days of "disarray, of overturned glasses of milk, of toys on the floor, of hours from sunrise to sunset that were horribly busy but filled with what, at the end of the day, seemed like absolutely nothing at all" (31). She concludes that reading provides the same escape now that it did when she was a kid. It allows her to "escape from a crowded house into an imaginary room of [my] own" (31).

One thing I found really interesting is that although Quindlen finds reading lists "arbitrary and capricious" (71), she includes 11 at the end of How Reading Changed My Life. Their titles range from "10 Mystery Novels I'd Most Like to Find in a Summer Rental" to "10 Books for a Girl Who Is Full of Beans (Or Ought to Be)" to "10 of the Books My Exceptionally Well Read Friend Ben Says He's Taken the Most From." The lists include old favorites as well as titles of which I've never heard.

Even though the information in Anna Quindlen's essay won't move any mountains, it provides an engaging way to pass an hour or so. Readers of all ages will recognize themselves, especially in the young Anna, who lies lost in her reading while her friends play outside, oblivious to the adventures waiting between the pages of a book. Anyone who loves books will find themselves here, in Anna's.

Grade: B

(Book Image from Powell's Books)

Saturday, April 05, 2008

The Biggest Loser Cookbook Offers A Variety of Easy, Healthful Recipes

After reading Jodi Picoult, I felt some lighter fare was in order. Literally. I picked up The Biggest Loser Cookbook the other day at Borders, and was excited to "read" it for the Soup's On Challenge.

The basic philosophy behind The Biggest Loser "diet" is to eat mostly unprocessed, natural foods. In the words of trainer Kim Lyons, "If God didn't make it, don't eat it" (xi). Thus, the recipes in the cookbook rely on natural ingredients, as well as some specialty foods that you probably don't have sitting in your pantry. The recipes aren't exotic, but you will probably have to make a special trip to the grocery store before trying most of them.

The recipes are divided into 6 categories: Breakfasts; Hearty Snacks; Sandwiches, Soups, and Stews; Sides and Salads; Main Courses; and Sweet Snacks. They come from past contestants on The Biggest Loser and from chef Devin Alexander. All of the recipes seem fairly easy to prepare; some have as little as two ingredients. As I was flipping through each section, I was surprised at the variety and originality of the dishes presented. I marked plenty recipes I want to try (after a trip to the grocery store, of course). I also liked that nutrition facts were listed for each dish.

I only found one recipe I could make with the ingredients I had on hand. It didn't turn out so well, but I think that was my fault :) Here's the recipe:

FROZEN HOT CHOCOLATE
2/3 c. hot water
1 packet (.29 oz.) sugar-free, fat free hot chocolate mix
2 T. aerosol fat-free whipped topping (optional)
In a small freezer-safe plastic container with a lid, combine the water and chocolate mix. Stir or whisk to dissolve the powder completely. Let stand to cool. Cover the container and place in the freezer for 4-5 hours, or until solid.
To serve, let the container stand at room temperature for 10-15 minutes, or until the hot chocolate is just starting to melt slightly around the edges. Or, place the container in the microwave and cook on high power for about 30 seconds. (It should still be somewhat hard and need to be scraped with a spoon.) Dollop with whipped topping, if desired. Serve immediately.
Makes 1 serving
Per serving: 25 calories, 2 g. protein, 4 g. carbohydrates, 0 g. fat, o mg cholesterol, 1 g. fiber, 150 mg sodium
I think my problem was that I didn't let the concoction freeze long enough (it had been in the freezer for barely 4 hours when I took it out). It was solid, though. Anyway, I opted to put it in the microwave for 30 seconds ... and it melted. I tasted one of the more solid chunks, and it reminded me of a sugar free fudgsicle. Not bad. I'm going to attempt this one again, since it's really easy. I'll let you know how it turns out.
I'm not sure how to rate a cookbook, but I'm excited about this one. The recipes seem easy, varied, and healthy. I'm looking forward to whipping up some more good, healthy fare from past contestants on my favorite weight loss reality show!

Jodi Picoult's Newest Tackles Tough Issues



(Image from Jodi Picoult's official website)

Jodi Picoult excels at examining "ripped from the headlines" issues in her novels; her newest, Change of Heart, is no exception. The story involves Shay Bourne, a 33-year-old carpenter who becomes New Hampshire's first Death Row inmate in nearly 60 years, when he is convicted of murdering two people. His victims are 7-year-old Elizabeth Nealon and her stepfather, police officer Kurt Nealon. Because of the heinous nature of the crimes, Shay is sentenced to death by lethal injection.

The bulk of the story takes place 11 years after Shay's conviction. With the day of his execution edging closer and closer, Shay begs for the chance to make his death meaningful by donating his heart to Elizabeth's younger sister, Claire, who will die without a transplant. Prison officials scoff at the idea, but determined ACLU lawyer Maggie Bloom promises to help him carry out his wish. With the help of Shay's spiritual advisor, Father Michael, Maggie puts her ambitious plan into action. The plan, of course, is not without its complications. For one thing, Father Michael has not divulged his big secret - he served on the jury that convicted Shay - to either Maggie or Shay. More importantly, however, is the fact that a good chunk of Americans believe the Death Row inmate is, in fact, Jesus Christ. Although Shay makes no such claims, the evidence seems irrefutable - not only is he a 33-year-old carpenter of ambigious birth (he's been in foster care all his life), but he's also performing miracles. Fellow inmates see him turn water into wine, erase hideous sores from an AIDS sufferer, bring a bird back to life, and distribute one piece of Bazooka chewing gum to multiple prisoners. Father Michael hears him preach from Gnostic texts, despite the fact that Shay has had no religious training whatsoever. Because of all this, thousands gather outside the prison, convinced that Christ's Second Coming has come to pass. Of course, there are also hordes of opposers, who claim the inmate is exactly what he appears to be - a cold-blooded killer.

In true Picoult fashion, the story is told alternately by the key players - Maggie, Father Michael, June Nealon (the victims' wife and mother), Claire Nealon, and inmate Lucius DuFresne. Each narrator offers a different perspective of Shay Bourne. Maggie knows he's no Jesus, but she's committed to helping him anyway (gaining media attention for the ACLU along the way, of course); Father Michael's guilty conscience pushes him into helping Shay, but the more time he spends with the man, the more he's convinced that Shay really is Jesus Christ; June Nealon wants nothing to do with the devil who killed her family, but she's forced to consider his offer to save the life of her daughter; Lucius doesn't know what to think; and Claire's voice offers a startling revelation when it's finally heard at the book's conclusion. While the characters puzzle out the mystery of Shay Bourne, the reader is forced to ask herself some tough questions, the least of which concern the Death Penalty. More disturbing are questions such as these: Can a person erase his past evil acts with enough good ones? How can people who profess to be Christians act in ways that are decidedly unChristlike? If there is a God, how can He allow good people to suffer? Which God/religion is correct? When Jesus comes again, will believers recognize Him or will He be condemned once again?

I've read all of Picoult's novels, and the thing I like most about them is the way she examines hot button issues from all sides. She has the ability to make me empathize with a variety of characters, even those who have committed reprehensible crimes. Her books are entertaining, with interesting characters, lots of racing-the-clock action, a little romance, and a little courtroom drama, but most of all, they make me think. Because of the religious issues Picoult tackles, Change of Heart has stuck with me more than her other novels. I definitely don't agree with a lot of the ideas presented, but the book provides fascinating fodder for discussion and debate.

Do I recommend the book? Absolutely. It's fascinating. Did I like the story? Kinda. There were parts of it that rubbed me the wrong way, and other aspects (like the ending) that I loved. Is it a good read? Definitely. It's got a little bit of everything, including enough suspense to qualify as a page-turner. Is it one of Picoult's best? Not really, but I think it has to be said that Picoult at her very worst is better than most authors at the top of their games. Although I wasn't thrilled with Change of Heart's storyline, I still consider it a solid contribution by this always-intriguing author.

For another view of the book (which somewhat matches my own), check out this post.

Grade: B

Friday, April 04, 2008

More Thoughts on Jodi Picoult's Change of Heart

Amanda over at A Patchwork of Books wondered about other Christian readers' thoughts on Jodi Picoult's newest book, Change of Heart. I have been thinking a lot about the book since I finished it, and decided I should write this follow-up post in response to some of the issues Picoult brought up in the book. It's going to be a random assortment of thoughts, so beware. If you aren't interested, just skip this post. If you are, I would (as always) love to read your comments. Please be aware, however, that I will not tolerate any bashing of Mormonism or other specific religions. Any offensive comments will be deleted (not that I think you all will make such comments, but religion is one of those explosive issues that can bring out the worst in people!).

Also, there may be spoilers in this post.
_________________________________________________

"He'd been a corn-fed Utah boy, pitching subscriptions to benefit the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints" (145). I don't know where Picoult got the idea that members of the LDS Church sell subscriptions door-to-door, but we don't. The church receives its money from its members, who pay a tithing of 10% on all earnings. Even my children donate - if they earn $1 from doing chores, they give a dime. We do not sell magazines to raise funds.

"People were always finding Jesus in jail. What if he was already here?" (83). One of the big issues in this book is whether or not Shay Bourne is literally Jesus Christ. Father Michael comes to believe that he is. Personally, I think the idea is ludicrous. The scriptures tell us that Christ's Second Coming will be preceded by a series of events that will signal His arrival. Thus, I don't believe He is going to sneak back to Earth disguised as a schizophrenic foster kid with a penchant for cold-blooded murder. More importantly, Jesus already fulfilled His mortal ministry. He had to have a body of flesh and blood in order to suffer for us; since He has already atoned for our sins, He no longer has any reason to live a mortal life.

The idea is also brought forth that Shay could be inhabited by Jesus Christ. I do believe that we are all literal sons and daughters of God. As such, we all have a divine spark within us, and we can all become like God, having the spirit of Christ. However, I believe there is only one Savior, and He will return in the manner described in the scriptures.

"As soon as I put him on the witness stand, a quiet pall fell over the people in the gallery ... And there, without me asking a single question, was my answer: no amount of piousness could erase the stain on the hands of a murderer" (338). Another of the book's themes is this: Can we ever perform enough good acts to make up for an evil one? In general, I would answer yes. If we offend someone, we can repent and make restitution. Maybe our reputation will never gain its former luster, but at least we can do our best to rebuild it. As for a murderer making up for the life he took - even by giving his heart so that another can live - I don't know. I think the only one who could truly take away that sin would be God.

"Did it really matter whether you believed that Jesus spoke the words in the Bible or the words in the Gospel of Thomas? Did it matter whether you found God in a consecrated church or a penitentiary or even in yourself? Maybe not. Maybe it only mattered that you not judge someone else who chose a different path to find meaning in his life" (400). I think this statement represents the moral of Change of Heart. It's basically accurate, although it feels like a politically-correct cop out from Picoult. It basically says that as long as you're a good person it doesn't matter what you believe, or where, when and how you worship. I agree with this to a point - the most important thing is to live a life steeped in love, kindness and good works. However, I think most people need some kind of theology to act as a guide to living. Without it, people flounder and are swayed by every new idea that comes along. Most religions seem to teach goodness and tolerance for your fellow man, but "goodness" and "tolerance" are kind of vague terms.


For myself, I would be lost without such a guide. My religion provides me with an example - Jesus Christ - who exemplified a perfect life. When I want to know how to act, I look to Him. Some think that is all He is - an example. I, however, believe that He was a literal being, that He literally walked on Earth, and literally died on the cross. To me, that matters.


I've come by this knowledge through prayer, fasting and experience. In the Bible, James exhorts us to find truth by asking God. This is the way to sort truth from falsehood.

"Who says that if you want to find God on a Sunday morning, you ought to be looking in church?" (124) This is another issue Change of Heart examines - the difference between organized religion and belief. A few paragraphs after the above quoteA, Father Michael makes this observation, "Just because you say you're Catholic, if you don't walk the walk, you're not." I agree with this statement. To me, it's not enough to say, "I believe in Christ," I have to prove it by studying His life, acting as He would, and sacrificing a few hours of my week to worship Him at church. I can say I'm Christian, but if I don't go to church, don't pray, don't help my fellow man - am I really?

That's not to say that following Christ's example is easy. It's not. It's the act of consistently trying that makes us true followers.

"And if I could ask people to take away one thing from my book it would be this: to stop thinking of beliefs as absolutes…and to see them instead as an invitation to have a conversation, and maybe learn something from someone else’s point of view." - Jodi Picoult

I agree that we need to be tolerant of other people's views, and that we can learn things from each other. Of course we can. Sects don't need to criticize or demoralize one another. I've never understood, for instance, why people feel the need to picket and protest at dedications of LDS temples. Why do they care? Certainly all of us could be a little more tolerant.

However, I do think of my beliefs as absolute. I absolutely believe that Jesus Christ died for me. I absolutely believe He will come again. Nothing is going to change those beliefs.

What did you think of the book?

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Here's A Shocker: Chick Lit With Substance

Lisa Daily's debut novel Fifteen Minutes of Shame is the kind of book I don't read in public. Its breezy cover screams CHICK LIT as loudly as a siren; I hate to sound like a snob, but this is a genre I'm embarrassed to be seen reading. Why? Well, it's got a reputation for being substanceless fluff, definitely less-than-literary. So, imagine my surprise when I not only liked this book, but actually considered giving it one of my coveted "A" grades. Pick your jaws up off the table now, and read on ...

The story features 31-year-old relationships expert Darby Vaughn. Not only is she a successful writer, public speaker, and radio host, but she's also married to handsome publicist Will Bradley, generally known as The Perfect Husband. Darby and Will have custody of his two kids from his former marriage to "a formerly sane beauty queen" (6). Even though the kids aren't technically hers, Darby takes care of them full-time and cherishes them as her own. She lives in an exclusive gated community, has a close circle of friends (her Dreamgirls) and legions of fans all over the country. Her life is the very definition of "charmed."

When Darby catches her husband at a gas station in Florida at the exact moment he's supposed to be boarding a plane for Atlanta, she panics. When he lies about his location, she gets angry. When a perusal of his locked desk drawer brings forth a handful of suspicious receipts, she gets paranoid. Could Will really be cheating on her? She's written articles and books on cheating men, wouldn't she have recognized the signs? When Will assuages her suspicions with a rational explanation, she is relieved. Feeling guilty for suspecting him, she heads off on her book tour. All is well until Today show host Matt Lauer confronts Darby with the morning's big news - publicist Will Bradley has filed for divorce, dissolving his current marriage so he can reconcile with his first wife, Gigi Bissanti. When the news sinks in, Darby expels her breakfast all over the chrysanthemums on Matt's coffee table. Live. On national television. Right before she passes out.

By the time Darby comes to, her career has taken a serious plunge down the toilet. Images of her puking on Today play out in living color on news programs, YouTube and newspapers everywhere. The public humiliation tortures her, but the real blow comes when she returns home to find her husband, children (she has been their primary caregiver since Gigi abandoned them for a spot on Hollywood's newest reality show), and whole life has up and gone away. The Dreamgirls encircle Darby, plying her with margaritas and creamy comfort foods. When she finally emerges from her grief, she's ready to follow her agent's advice and "mov[e] on with your life as a fun, fabulous, single girl" (126). So, she hires a killer divorce lawyer, starts a couple "fauxmances" with gorgeous playboys, and stars in a career - enlivening reality dating show.

Finally, her life appears to be back on track, but appearances are decieving. Darby soon finds there is a big difference between being successful and being happy. On a night when she's dressed to the nines, she wishes "that someone who cared about me could see me looking this way" (141). Another day filming her reality show just feels "pitiful and empty" (201). She misses her life, especially the kids. Just to make her life more complicated, Darby finds she's attracted to her lawyer. To make matters even worse, Will calls begging her to reconsider their marriage. He offers her the thing she wants most - "her" kids. But, what will happen to her fragile career, not to mention her life, if she breaks her own advice to "Never stay with a cheater! Never!" (240). Darby adores "her" kids, but can she risk staying with a man she will never trust again? Can she shoot her credibility, thereby destroying her career just to be near kids who aren't even hers? And what about the electricity that shoots through her body every time she touches her "killer" lawyer with a heart of gold? Darby has to make some tough decisions in order to reclaim her life, including the most important one - is it even the life she really wants?

Like I said, this is a fluffy book with deeper issues. At its heart, it is a story about success v. happiness, career v. family, and thriving v. surviving. It's about identity ("Without my family, my house, my career, without all the things I've dedicated my life to over the last several years, who the hell am I?" [84]), misconception

I imagined that married bliss looked a lot like a Pottery Barn catalog, complete with shed-free chocolate labs, beach barbecues with a handsome, adoring husband who rakes in $200K and still makes it home in plenty of time for every family event, and two charming, mannerly children who wipe their feet in the mudroom and play together for hours without conflict in the $900 lemonade stand. (16)

and the truly important things in life.

Of course, Fifteen Minutes of Shame is not without its chick lit fluff. There's a laugh-out-loud funny scene with a gay room service waiter, as well as lots of feel-good female bonding. Dating tips are sprinkled throughout the book. There's also plenty of the requisite male-bashing, male-lusting, and male-loving.

Given all this, the thing that surprised me about the book is how well it is written. It's sharp, funny, and actually very heartwarming. Daily writes what she knows; since she's a real-life relationships expert, she knows exactly what life for a fictional relationships expert would be like. This gives the story a realistic feel, even if certain parts seem a little far-fetched. Daily's writing is surprisingly original (even if her plot is not) - Darby's mind "starts whirling, with horrible, panicky thoughts spewing out like Lotto balls" (21), her city is "a town full of social climbers and no ladder" (96), and a party host's decor is "often imitated, always boring" (96).

As for negatives, there aren't that many, really. The characters in Fifteen Minutes of Shame are familiar, some (like Will) border on cliche. As I mentioned before, the book's plot gets a bit far-fetched, while remaining absolutely predictable. There were some irritating scenes, like the one in which Darby decides to start dating publicly (not seriously - just to attract media attention) before her divorce is final, then professes absolute shock when her lawyer reminds her that tramping around could ruin her case. Duh. I also could not understand why Darby works so hard to repair her marriage when she doesn't seem to miss Will at all after the breakup. She laments the loss of the children, but Will? Not so much. There just didn't seem to be much of a spark between them. The book was also filled with references to current events (Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, Brittney Spears' flashing incident) and pop culture (YouTube, Google, Starbucks, etc) which will easily date it (not that I expect it will become a classic, but still ...).

All in all, though, Fifteen Minutes of Shame is a fun, witty romp that actually hits on some serious issues. Despite her somewhat glamorous life, Darby Vaughn is an Everywoman that readers will relate to and sympathize with. Her life makes for fast, entertaining reading that you might actually consider showing in public. If you're at the beach. Under an umbrella. Where no one can see how much you're enjoying chick lit, that most embarrassing of genres.

Grade: B
(Book Image from Barnes & Noble)

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Twisted Fairy Tales Make For A Creepy Read

(Image from Amazon)

For all those mothers who refuse to read fairy tales to their children because the stories are just too violent and scary, I offer you vindication in the form of John Connolly's The Book of Lost Things. It gave me nightmares for two straight nights.

The story begins in London, where 12-year-old David keeps watch over his mother, who is slowly dying. He reads her stories and performs elaborate rituals, but nothing can save her. When she dies, David's world shatters. Before he's even had time to begin grieving, his father hits him with a double whammy: not only does he have a girlfriend, but she is pregnant. The year is 1939, and German bombs crash all over London, but David barely notices - his world is being torn apart by his very own father. Soon, the three of them move into Rose's country home. It is more peaceful than London, but David's heart continues to yearn for his old life. Things only get worse when his stepbrother makes his way into the world. The colicky baby wails non-stop, making the whole family tense and cranky. To make matters worse, David's father works constantly with the war effort, leaving him home with Rose and the squalling infant. His only escape is his bedroom, which is thankfully stocked with shelves of storybooks.

David loves books, but lately they have been making him a little uncomfortable. He can hear them whispering. The old tales, the ones that his mother loved, "seemed to recognize something in him, or so he came to believe, something curious and fertile. He heard them talking: softly at first, then louder and more compellingly" (10). As David examines the storybooks, he finds that many of the fairy tales have been cruelly re-written. Many of them bear the name "Jonathan Tulvey." According to Rose, Jonathan was her great-uncle, who disappeared along with his stepsister when they were children. With tales of werewolves, hobgoblins and witches swirling around in his head, David begins to have frightening visions of a creature skulking about in his room. The figure was "slightly hunched, as though it had become so used to sneaking about that its body had contorted, the spine curving, the arms like twisted branches, the fingers clutching, ready to snatch at whatever it saw" (50-51). Terrified, David tells his father, who dismisses it as his imagination. But the gnarled monster, which David dubs The Crooked Man won't go away. It haunts his bedroom, his dreams, and worse, his brother's nursery. In the midst of these waking nightmares, he hears his mother's voice, begging him to rescue her from the monster's clutches. David follows her voice to a sunken garden, through a tunnel and into a strange, new world.

David knows his mother is trapped somewhere in this alternate reality; he must rescue her. He trudges through a world that seems familiar somehow. He meets a woodsman, who speaks of a girl in a red cloak meeting a wolf in the forest while taking a basket of food to her ailing grandmother. He encounters seven dwarves who toil in a mine and share their cottage with a woman. He discovers a castle encased in thorns, wherein lies a slumbering princess. In short, he has found a land of fairy tales. But these tales have been twisted. Very twisted. Little Red Riding Hood seduces the wolf, producing wolfmen who prowl the forest for anything to tear apart. Snow White makes the dwarves' lives a living hell, and the sleeping beauty resembles Elvira more than a Disney Princess.

The fairy tale world horrifies David with its violence and bloodshed. Enemies taunt him at every turn, and The Crooked Man watches hungrily from the fringes. Still, David presses on, searching for his mother. With danger lurking in every direction, he journeys to see the King of the storybook land, who possesses The Book of Lost Things, which David hopes will help him return home. But, the castle produces the most gruesome sights yet. Can he rescue his mother in time? Or will David be trapped inside the book land forever?

One commenter compared The Book of Lost Things to Cornelia Funke's Inkspell, so I was prepared to be as charmed with the former as I was with the latter. A couple chapters into it, I realized John Connolly's novel was not that kind of book. Instead of charming, The Book of Lost Things is creepy, gory and just downright disturbing. Yet, I could not put it down. Why? In the words of a reviewer with the Houston Chronicle, "Connolly writes like a poet about terrible horrors." It's true. The book's writing is masterful. An observation David makes in the story describes this book perfectly: "David could not equate the beauty of the craftmanship with the sinister place that now held them" (243). The Book of Lost Things is dark, sinister and strangely beautiful. I appreciated Connolly's originality, his mastery of language, and his subtle symbolism, but I can't say I liked the story. It was just so ... disturbing. I kept wondering why Connolly made the book so dark. I finally found this explanation in an interview printed in the back of the book. The author stated:

"In general, though, I was reluctant throughout the book to "sanitize" the old tales in any way, and they remain 'red in tooth and claw' ... to remove the violence and threat from the stories is to take away much of their potency, as well as to undermine the messages they communicate about the sometimes troubling and terrifying nature of the world children inhabit" (417).

If you like the idea of a storybook/fairy tale plot, but don't want all the gore, stick with Inkspell. If you're made of tougher stuff, you may enjoy this book. Just remember when you scream yourself awake at night to chant this mantra: It's just a story. It's just a story. And, if you start hearing your books talk, and seeing visions of The Crooked Man, you may want to set John Connolly's creepy masterpiece aside.

Grade: B
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I really liked this quote about reading, which also appears in the interview at the back of The Book of Lost Things:

"I think the act of reading imbues the reader with a sensitivity toward the outside world that people who don't read can sometimes lack. I know it seems like a contradiction in terms; after all, reading is such a solitary, internalizing act that it appears to represent a disengagement from day-to-day life. But reading, and particularly the readinf of fiction, encourages us to view the world in new and challenging ways. I have always believed that fiction acts as a prism, taking the reality of our existence and breaking it down into its constituent parts, allowing us to see it in a completely differnet form. It allows us to inhabit the consciousness of another, which is a precursor to empathy, and empathy is, for me, one of the marks of a decent human being."
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