Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Stand Back, Martha Stewart - New Guide Offers Hope to Dinner Party Dummies

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

I have a confession to make: I am no Martha Stewart. Crafty projects that look so cute in magazines die slow, painful deaths in my hands. Dishes that enter my oven have about a 50/50 chance of making it out alive. Forget about dinner parties - the mere thought is enough to make me break out in hives. So, when I was asked to review Easy Entertaining for Beginners by Patricia Mendez, I jumped at the chance. I mean, any book that puts the words easy and beginner in the same title as entertaining screams for a look-see from this homemaking horror show.

Mendez begins the entertaining guide with two very profound rules of thumb: Pace yourself, and Do a few things and do them well. When I think of every party I've ever stressed over (and that would be every one I've ever thrown), I realize that most of my anxiety came directly from not following these suggestions. Next time I get crazy enough to throw a party, I'm going to remember to take it slowly and not overwhelm myself with doing everything perfectly.

To encourage this pacing process, Mendez's book offers 13 complete menus for various types of parties, including children's birthday bashes, a Mother's Day tea and a men's night out. Each party idea comes with a step-by-step plan to follow. She even suggests music to go with each occasion and shortcuts to make the menus even simpler. Although there are some recipes that sound exotic (Shrimp Ceviche with Tostaditos, for example), most actually look manageable. No matter how delectable a dish sounds, I won't try a recipe if it calls for ingredients I have to look up in the dictionary. For the most part, Mendez's menus call for simple, everyday items. In short, the book contains recipes I might actually try.

Right after combing through Easy Entertaining for Beginners, I glanced through the Paula Deen magazine I bought on impulse while waiting in the checkout lane for a snowbird to sort through her mountain of coupons for every product but the ones she purchased, and I realized at once what Mendez's book is missing - personality. The writing lacks sparkle. I thought for sure the section "My First Thanksgiving" would have some funny anecdotes, but nope. Snappier prose would have made the book so much more memorable. I also wanted more color photos - I need to at least know if the dishes I make come anywhere near to looking like they are supposed to.

So, if the words "dinner party" have you quaking in your boots, you should definitely glance through this book. It needs snappier prose and more color photos to earn an A from me, but really, it's a very decent entertaining guide. Is it convincing enough to get me started on the housewarming party I've been putting off for the last 2 months? C'mon, no entertaining guide is that good.

Grade: B



Monday, October 27, 2008

Red Sea Starts With A Bang, Ends With Adrenaline Rush (and a Giveaway!)


Maybe it's the fact that politics bore me. Or my complete ignorance of goings-on in the Middle East. Or maybe I'm just really, really tired. Whatever the reason, I had a hard time plowing through Red Sea by E.A. Benedek. It shouldn't have been difficult to get into this book - after all, it's got enough explosions, car chases, and government conspiracies to fuel several movies. Still, for some reason, I didn't find it "unputtdownable" until the last 1/3 of the book.

Red Sea starts off with a bang - literally. When four commercial airplanes explode on the same day, killing hundreds, investigators from every country rush to figure out what happened. Among them are French-born Marie Petersson, a journalist working in New York; Julian Granot, an Israeli operative brought out of retirement especially for the job; and Morgan Ensley, a cynical FBI Agent from Texas. Realizing they can gather more information together, the trio form a tentative alliance. Marie agrees to keep her eyes and ears open, reporting back to Julian, in exchange for access to sources for explosive stories. Although consorting with representatives from other governments is strictly forbidden by FBI protocol, Morgan decides to risk it. Together, they look into the shady corners of Baghdad, searching for any leads on the airplane explosions.

Accusing would-be terrorists of blowing up planes is dangerous enough, but when Marie and Morgan find evidence of an even bigger plot against the U.S., they find themselves running for their lives. If their suspicions are correct, New York is in for an even more devastating disaster than 9/11. But government officials are notoriously hard to convince, especially when their own people are running rogue investigations. Can Julian, Morgan and Marie get the right information into the right hands in time to stop a terrorist's mad plot? What will Marie do when she discovers a very personal connection to the whole crazy scheme? Will New York suffer at the hands of terrorists once more or can the unlikely team prevent one of the worst disasters in U.S. History?

As this summary suggests, Red Sea is an action-packed race to the finish with the fate of New York hanging in the balance. From Jordan to Turkey to Iraq to New Jersey, the characters search for answers, whether the question is Who rigged four planes to explode? or How can I glorify Islam by destroying infidels from the West? The plot rings with contemporary urgency, playing on current fears. What results is a compelling, but chilling story about very real issues. So, why couldn't I get into it? For one thing, I think Red Sea sacrifices good character development for increased action - a common occurrence in thrillers. Consequently, the only character that felt real to me was Julian. The others seemed to be merely caricatures, although Marie's background - which is revealed too slowly - makes her a more rounded character than she first appears. Also, I think there were too many players of which to keep track. I kept forgetting who was who. An abundance of technical and cultural information establishes Benedek's authority, but slowed the story down for me, dulling the action. Once I hit the last 1/3 of the novel, however, I was hooked. Its conclusion kept my heart pounding until 1:30 a.m., when I finally finished the book.

I freely admit that political/international thrillers really aren't my cup of tea, so I didn't enjoy Red Sea as much as fans of the genre probably would. Still, I appreciate Benedek's authority and her ability to produce a heart-pounding ending. The fact that I'm still up at almost 2 in the morning attests to what an adrenaline rush it was. Because I'm too tired to think of a clever conclusion to this review, I'm just going to say this: If you'd like a chance to experience the rush for yourself, leave a comment on this post for a chance to win my copy of Red Sea by E.A. Benedek. I'll draw the winner's name on November 5. Good luck!

Grade: B-

(Book Image from Mcmillan)

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Sweet Life Just Okay

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Chucking the hustle-bustle of New York City for the gentle pace of island life seems like a no-brainer. So, why is Marissa Price finding life in Hawaii so difficult? Maybe it's because she's traded her high-powered career for the lonely life of a stay-at-home mom. Or perhaps it has to do with her husband Paul who spends his days enjoying his job, cavorting with his gorgeous secretary, and clocking in a lot more hours at the gym than at home. Of course, it could be the leaky, crumbling B&B she now inhabits that is getting her down. Whatever the reason, Marissa is feeling bored, lonely and impatient to get the heck out of paradise.

So begins Mia King's second novel, Sweet Life. By the middle of the book, Marissa is tottering on the brink of divorce, her daughter Pansy's unhappy at school, and the family's finances have taken a significant plunge. Determined to get back to her "real life" in New York, Marissa has to figure out how to make her dilapidated house sellable in a finicky market, while not bankrupting herself in the process. With Paul living in his own apartment, it seems logical to rent out rooms in her spacious house. Soon, Marissa finds herself living with an eclectic group of roommates, women she never would have chosen as friends. It works, somehow. In fact, with their support, she begins renovating her home, going on excursions with a handsome stable owner, and slowly shifting her priorities. By the time Marissa returns to New York for a quick visit, her mind is in turmoil - should she move back to the mainland, plop Pansy back in her sophisticated school, and re-join the ratrace? Or should she stay in Hawaii, where she has friends and peace of mind? Then, of course, there is Paul. Is their marriage worth trying to save? Or has it finally come to its inevitably bitter end? Sweet Life is a story about finding true happiness even in the most miserable of situations. It's about deciding what really makes life sweet.

Although I like the premise of this novel, it fell a little flat for me. For one thing, I found Marissa Price really dislikable. She starts off as snooty, selfish and condescending. By the end of the novel, she's less abrasive, but I still found her obnoxious. I didn't love Paul either. Even the characters who were more likeable seemed generic and colorless. The plot led in some interesting directions, but I felt the story was overly long and downright dull in places. I did like the story's exotic setting, and the way King painted it with charming and vibrant details. I connected with King's Hawaii, if not with her characters.

So, my opinion of Sweet Life is decidedly ho-hum. I didn't love it, didn't hate it. In the end, I have to channel my inner Randy Jackson and say, "Sorry, dawg (wahine?), this one was just okay for me."

Grade: B-

Friday, October 24, 2008

Vibrant Willow Celebrates Life in Color

Every time I receive a book in the mail (and it's almost a daily occurrence around here), my 6-year-old bookworm jumps up and down shrieking, "Is it a kid's book? Is it a kid's book?" So, when I finally received a children's book in the mail yesterday, my daughter could barely contain her excitement. After squealing her delight over its bright cover, she whisked Willow off to the couch and devoured it. I heard gasps, giggles and happy sighs escaping her lips as she read. Perched on my lap, she read it a second time so I could enjoy the book before it disappeared into the no-man's land otherwise known as her bedroom. As soon as she finished, she lept up, exclaiming, "Where are my paints? Willow gave me soooo many ideas. I need lots of colors, Mom!" I can't think of a better endorsement for this story than my daughter's reaction - any story that inspires that kind of enthusiasm in a child has to be good, right?



First off, I have to thank Amanda for (1) Her glowing review of this book, and (2) giving me the chance to win a signed copy. I was almost as excited about winning Willow as my daughter was about reading it! Amanda says it's one of her favorite books of the year, and I can certainly see why.

Willow was written by sisters Denise Brennan Nelson and Rosemarie Brennan. The fun, colorful illustrations are by Cyd Moore, who also did the pictures for the I Love You, Stinky Face books. The story stars Willow, a young girl who refuses to surrender her imagination to the colorless world of Miss Hawthorn, her art teacher. When she's instructed to paint trees "with straight brown trunks and round green tops," Willow refuses to give up her pink paint. Even though Miss Hawthorn labels her a "horrid little girl," she continues to infuse her art with the colors she loves. The art teacher does not appreciate Willow's creative thinking, but a special gift just might change her mind. Will Miss Hawthorn break out of her cold, colorless world or will students forever be trapped inside her dark art room where a tree can never be anything but brown and green?

As you can see, Willow is a bright, colorful book about the importance of creativity and
imagination. My daughter related to the spunky Willow, who wouldn't allow her imagination to be limited by anything or anyone. The illustrations are different, fun and perfectly in tune with the story. Any child who loves art, color and creativity (and isn't that every child?) will adore this book about an irrepressible little girl who simply wants everyone to see life the way she does - in vibrant, living color.

My daughter just whipped Willow out of my hands. It's headed upstairs to the happy, colorful no-man's land of a child's inner sanctum - exactly where it belongs.

Grade: A

(Images from Cyd Moore's official website)

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Desperately Seeking Substance

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

What do you do when summer vacation means big adventures for everyone ... but you? If you're Samantha Costas, star of Ben Furman's Sam's Quest for the Crimson Crystal, you take matters into your own hands.

Once again, Sam's archaeologist parents are spending the summer searching for the lost city of Atlantis. Once again, Sam will be stuck on her grandpa's isolated farm. She enjoys time spent with the old man and his friendly dog Patch, but a whole summer? With no t.v., no malls, no movies, she will go out of her mind with boredom ... unless she finds an adventure of her own. Before she knows it, Sam finds her wish fulfilled - she's shimmying down a hole in the ground, following a boy about the size of her thumb into his mysterious underground world.

Sam has always felt a connection with Mile-High Mountain, which looms over her grandfather's property, and now she understands why. Buzz, her miniature guide, explains that the Costas Family has always protected his people, the Awoks. Now the mountain dwellers are under siege from the repugnant Zogs. Buzz pleads for help. When Sam protests that she's not a hero, just an ordinary girl, he tells her about an ancient prophecy claiming a redheaded Costas with a diamond-shaped birthmark will save the Awoks. The prophecy seems to point directly at her, but can she really save the gentle people from the formiddable Zogs? Can she really find the crystal that seems to be the key to their survival?

With the help of Buzz and Patch, Sam takes on the quest. It's a journey that will take her into the mysterious mountain where moths are pets, people communicate with color, and dragonflies act as royal coaches. She will also venture into the mountain's sinister underworld where a ferocious Zog plots not only to kill Sam, but also to claim the thrones of all the mountain worlds. Can she survive long enough to find the crystal, defeat the Zogs and save the Awoks? She's not sure, but she's willing to try, even if it means giving her life. After all, that's what a great adventure is all about.

Sam's Quest for the Crimson Crystal offers a decent, if predictable, plot. It's fast, fun and somewhat original. The writing isn't especially vibrant, the characters don't leap off the page, but it's really not a bad little story. I enjoyed the mountain land Furman created, especially the idea of the Awoks "auras" - or the idea that they communicate as much with color as with words. Such spots of originality make the novel's plot holes and contrived happenings less noticeable, although I still found them distracting. What I really wanted was more substance - more interesting characters, a meatier plot and a compelling reason for Sam to risk her life for people she barely knows. Sam's Quest for the Crimson Crystal is not bad, but, let's be clear - I'm not clearing my schedule so I can devour the next book in the series.


Grade: C



Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Wednesday Winners

Today is the day! I drew 3 names to win Lima Nights and The Sky Below (I didn't actually "draw" them - www.random.org did). Here they are:

Julie P. won an ARC of Lima Nights by Marie Arana.

Fat and Tara both won ARCs of The Sky Below by Stacey D'Erasmo.

Thanks to everyone who entered. Congratulations, you three! If you'll send me your snail mail addresses (blogginboutbooks[AT]gmail[DOT][COM], I can probably get the books in the mail tomorrow.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Found: An Absorbing New Series

After reading Becky's glowing review of Found by Margaret Peterson Haddix, I knew I had to

get my hands on a copy. Lucky for me, this was Book Fair week at my kids' school and they had plenty of copies on hand. I tried not to salivate as I paid for it, carried it home and hid it from my 9-year-old who kept begging for a peek. Finally, I got a moment alone with my new acquisition, and that was it ... I don't think I looked up until I turned the last page. It's that good.

The story opens with a strange discovery. On the first day of her new job at Sky Trails Air, Angela DuPre notices an unscheduled airplane landing at the airport. Pilot error seems to be the only explanation for the unexpected arrival. There's only one problem - no pilot is aboard the aircraft. When no one emerges from the plane, Angela tiptoes onto the aircraft to investigate. To her astonishment, a baby is sitting in every single seat. Before she has a chance to fully process what she is seeing, the FBI takes over, warning Angela never to speak about what she witnessed.

Fast forward 13 years. Jonah Skidmore is playing basketball with his friend Chip when his sister hands him a letter. The note contains only six words - You are one of the missing - but they're enough to send a major shiver down Jonah's spine. Is it some kind of prank? Most of his classmates know he's adopted - are they playing around with him? Whatever. He rips the letter up and re-focuses on his jump shot. Hours later, there's a pounding on his door. A frantic Chip stands there, raving about receiving a letter just like Jonah's. After confronting his father with the note, Chip learned that he was also adopted. While Jonah's parents are pretty open about his adoption, Chip's are the exact opposite. With his parents refusing to address his questions, he turns to Jonah for help.

Jonah wants to help his friend - after all, he's wondered about his own birthparents - but something just seems fishy about the situation. First, there are the eerie letters. Then, a search of Chip's dad's safe turns up the name of an FBI agent connected to Chip's adoption. Before long, the two boys and Jonah's sister, Katherine, have launched a full-on investigation. Their questions lead to a meeting with FBI Agent Jimmy Reardon, where the kids find a file listing Jonah and Chip as "Survivors." But, survivors of what? A phone call to Angela DuPre reveals some answers, but her conjectures are just a little bit crazy. Babies on a plane with no parents? What could that possibly mean? Who are Jonah and Chip, really? And why are there strange men tracking the kids' every move? Together, Jonah, Chip and Katherine must find the answers not only to confirm their own identities, but to save the world from an evil they are barely beginning to comprehend.

An original plot, coupled with non-stop action makes Found a fast, absorbing read that will hook even reluctant readers. The adventure story will keep you reading, but the ethical issues Haddix presents will make you think. As always, her presentation is subtle, but effective. She's never preachy, but the questions she asks linger long after the book comes to a close. Luckily, there is plenty of time to mull over ethics - Found is just the beginning of this exciting new series. I, for one, will be waiting anxiously for the next installment.

Grade: A

(Book Image from Barnes & Noble)

Saturday, October 18, 2008

I'm An Idiot - Woo Hoo!

You know you get too many books, when you look at the titles and can't remember requesting them. Due to a little confusion on my part, I received multiple copies of 2 books I'm looking at for Elle magazine. Since I feel like such an idiot, I decided the best thing for me to do was offer the extras up to you.

Now, I have to admit that I didn't love either of these books; in fact, one of them disturbed me so much I didn't even review it here. I admit I can sometimes be prudish and judgmental, so maybe the titles are classics-in-the making. You be the judge:

I have 1 ARC of Lima Nights by Marie Arana. My review of the book is in the post before this one. I also have 2 ARCs of The Sky Below by Stacey D'Erasmo. One is the copy I read, so it is "gently used;" the other is brand, spankin' new. The new one will go to the name I draw first. Here's the blurb from the back of the book:

From a rising literary star, "in the tradition of Carol Shields and A.S. Byatt," comes this luminous story of a contemporary man's metamorphosis.

Andrea Barrett and Michael Cunningham have lauded Stacey D'Erasmo for the beauty of her language and her ability to create worlds that leave a lasting impression. In her new novel, D'Erasmo reaches back to Ovid for inspiration in a tale of how the mythic animates our everyday lives.

At thirty-seven, Gabriel Callahan works as a halfhearted obituary writer at a fading newspaper in lower Manhattan, which, since 9/11, feels like a city of the dead. This once dreamy and appealing boy has turned from a rebellious adolescent to an adult who trades in petty crime. His wealthy, older boyfriend is indulgent of him - to a point. But after a brush with his own mortality, Gabriel must flee to Mexico in order to put himself back together. By the novel's end we know all of Gabriel's rattly little secrets; but by dint of D'Erasmos' spectacular writing, we exult in the story of an imperfect man who - tested by a world that is often too much for him - rises to meet the challenge.

Both books have graphic sex scenes and language, although Arana's is less gritty. They are both well-written - I just had trouble seeing past all the doomy, gloomy, depressing elements. I know I'm not making them sound very appealing, but they probably deserve a look-see from someone who can be more objective. If that person is you, please leave a comment and I'll enter you in the drawing. Specify which book you're interested in, or indicate you'd like to be entered for both. Because this month is getting very busy on me, I'm going to make this giveaway a litte quicker than usual. I'll draw the names of 3 winners on Wednesday, the 22nd. Good luck!

Tango Tale Makes Me Happy to Move On

Lima Nights by Marie Arana is like the tango - exotic, passionate and dramatic. It's about two partners who, from the audience's view, move together with precision, polish and passion. Seen a little closer, through opera glasses perhaps, things are not quite as smooth. Suddenly, the dancers become people - flawed, angry and irreparably out of synch. The book ends with a disappointing finale - as a performance never should - yet it leaves an imprint, if only because of its warning.

The book begins in a Peruvian tango bar, where "gringo" Carlos Bluhm spots the lovely Maria. One of the club's dancers, she is outgoing and flirtatious, seemingly as interested in Carlos as he is in her. When she slips her number into his back pocket, she offers him an escape he can't refuse. Before he's really paused to consider the possible consequences of his action, Bluhm dials her number. He's so infatuated that he hardly cares about the differences between them - Maria is 15, a dark-skinned native, who is working two jobs to keep rice on her family's table, whereas Bluhm is a husband, father and member of Lima's high-class Germanic society. Despite warnings from his friends, he continues the affair, falling deeply and passionately for Maria. The relationship makes him feel young, needed and happy.

In a society where cheating husbands are par for the course, it's no surprise that his wife, Sophie, soon becomes suspicious. When her fears are confirmed, she leaves Bluhm to deal with the consequences of the mess into which he's gotten himself. Twenty years later, he's contemplating just how messy things between himself and Maria have become. Can he save his marriage? Does he even want to? It will take a little black magic, a little modern-day psychiatry, and a brush with death to decide the fate of the mismatched lovers. It's a sizzling, obsessive tango between two flawed dancers, that comes to a shocking conclusion on the grimy streets of Lima.

Although Lima Nights is essentially about a lecherous middle-aged man, his teenage lover, the sex they have in stolen moments, and the people they destroy in the process, I somehow managed not to hate the book. It's graphic in both sex and language, neither of which tend to endear me to a book. Still, Arana's writing becomes the deciding factor - her themes are lurid, but she writes in a way that is both sensitive and unsentimental. Her characters get what they deserve, but she is able to make us feel sorry for them. Although I disliked Bluhm almost immediately, I found both he and Maria to be sympathetic and real. In spite of myself, I wanted the lovers to get a happy ending. Unfortunately, this book offers another example of how a disappointing ending can really mar a story. After I scowled at the novel's "resolution," I set the depressing story aside, and very happily moved on. I never liked the tango that much anyway.

Grade: C

(Book Image from Barnes & Noble)

Monday, October 13, 2008

Facts Overwhelm the Fiction in Tale of Early Alaska

(Image from Simon & Schuster)

If you watch The Tonight Show, you've probably seen a segment called "Jaywalking" in which Jay Leno questions average Janes and Joes about history, current events, and other topics. I'm not one who keeps up with that kind of stuff, so I'm often as clueless as Leno's victims, but still ... their ignorance makes for some hilarious tv. With Sarah Palin in the news, Leno recently queried Americans about Alaska. One of the questions stumped me - from whom did The United States buy the frozen state? After reading Dancing at the Odinochka by Kirkpatrick Hill, I'm proud to say I know the answer. In fact, I know heaps more about Alaska than I ever did before. Read on and you, too, will be prepared for Leno's peppering.

The novel tells the story of Erinia Pavaloff, a young girl living at an odinochka (trading post) in Alaska about 150 years ago. At that time, the land belonged to Russia and was known as Russian America. Our heroine actually lived - in fact, she was related to the author's stepfather - and this novel is based on a memoir she wrote in 1936. When the tale opens, Erinia is a young girl who loves her life at the odinochka on the banks of the Yukon River. Although she never wants to leave her home, she's curious about life outside the trading post. Luckily, the odinochka receives a fairly steady stream of visitors - from family members, to other Indian tribes, to the American soldiers who come to install a telegraph line. Through them, she sees, tastes and learns things that amaze her. Someday, she wants to see exotic items like carpets and horses and cities with perpetual sunshine. It's all so foreign to her, especially when all her actions are governed by her father's Russian ways and her mother's old, impractical traditions.

Erinia's family develops a close relationship with the Americans, even teaching them Russian and giving them animal skins to keep them warm. They welcome the new, exotic presence of the jovial soldiers. Despite the friendshp, Erinia's family and the other natives do not welcome the news that comes several years later - Russian America, now called Alaska, belongs to the U.S. Tales of native mistreatment at the hands of American soldiers in other villages makes them wary. Progress seems to be stepping all over tradition, something which plagues Erinia's mother especially since "she's known all along that one of the new things would take her sons, that nothing could hold them since they learned how wide the world was, and how many interesting things there were to see and do" (208).

As if her new identity isn't enough to deal with, Erinia's world tears apart even further when her brother commits an act that puts them all in danger. Suddenly, her odinochka is under attack on more than one front. Will her life ever be the same? Or will the world she knows disappear forever?

Like all historical novels, Dancing at the Odinochka boasts vivid period detail. I loved learning about early Alaskan culture, especially through the eyes of inquisitive little Erinia who views her world with as much wonderment as an outsider. About halfway through the book, though, the facts lost some of their luster. I was ready for some good, old-fashioned fiction. Unfortunately, the plot really doesn't begin until 3/4 of the way through the book. The last 1/4 moves along pretty quickly, but I'm not sure how many readers will endure long enough to reach the action. I realize the story is based on Erinia's real life, so it might have worked better as a non-fiction book. Even a diary-type format might have made it more exciting. I'm not saying it's a bad book - it just gets a little dull. The period detail really is fascinating, I just needed a little more story to keep me awake.

Grade: B -

Plotless Entertaining Disasters Saved By Narrator's Poignant Musings

(Image from Amazon)

If you're looking for a breezy beach read, you're not going to find it in Entertaining Disasters by Nancy Spiller. In fact, you won't find a lot of things in this book. No thrills, no action, no adventure, no romance, no real plot. However, if you don't mind a slower pace, a little melancholy and a lot of introspection, then this book should be in your hands. It won't demand a lot of your time or keep you up at night flipping pages, but its sharp observations on life will make you pause. And think. And identify. And laugh. And possibly cry.

The book features an unnamed foodie, who writes about her elaborate, celebrity-studded dinner parties for L.A.'s culinary magazines. In her articles, she describes the food she prepares, the guests she entertains, and the memories she made baking with her mother. Her expertise speaks for itself. So, why does an upcoming dinner party with a well-known food editor have her quaking in her boots? The truth is, she hasn't entertained in over a decade. Her mouth-watering menus have been prepared only in her head, her guests invented in her imagination. One upon a time, she did entertain, but now, the thought makes her tremble. Paranoia has her questioning everything - will anyone show up for the party? What will she talk about with them? Will her guests like her food? Will they be bored to tears? Can she find a good excuse to cancel? Her grandmother has only died twice and she hasn't come down with a good flu lately ...

As our heroine obsesses about the party, she contemplates the terror that paralyzes her in social situations. She muses over her disfuctional family, her less-than-passionate marriage, her culinary education, and the crushing effort that goes into planning a real, live dinner party.

Although the book drags under details only hard-core foodies will find interesting, it's buoyed by the authenticity of the narrator's voice. The novel lacks swift pacing, careful plotting and lively dialogue, but our heroine will entrance you with her vulnerability. Her paranoid, sarcastic views on life keep the book interesting, while her true memories of childhood make it absolutely riveting. Since the narrator's sharp, poignant musings really make the book, I offer you a sample of her thoughts*:

On family: There isn't a place for a family like ours in the grand scheme of American dreams, and no one, least of all us, knows how to respond to it.

Sometimes I fear that if I stop mourning its loss, this family will cease to exist altogether. That my sorrow is the only thing keeping it alive. Or possibly that this family never existed at all.

On dining together: At this point in the process it invariably dawned on me that the real hunger in all of this was not merely for food, but for the company of others. When none of us seemed to have time for anything, including a sit-down, well-prepared meal, and everyone appeared trapped in a solo chase after things we were not even sure existed, companionship and community could be the first things cut from the to-do list. The thought of a dinner amongst friends took on the backlit glow of a Platonic ideal.

On the rat-race: I wasn't trying to make this a business evening, but I wasn't an idiot, either, and when you went to this much effort in Los Angeles, it had better, like the freeways, lead somewhere. That's why they called it the City of Angles. Most of the population was running on a biofuel based on fear-borne angst, and it took too much of the stuff to not turn every event into a golden on-ramp. Marisa would be mine that night.

You get the picture. Come January, you'll definitely want to get the book.

Grade: B+

*Quoting from an ARC is a big no-no for reviewers, so I have to justify my actions by saying that (1) I didn't think you could really get the essence of the book without quotes, (2) I can't check the text of the ARC against a final copy, because those won't be available until January, and (3) Spiller's publicist never emailed me back to verify the quotes. So, there. I'm safe, right?

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Ka-Ching! We Have Some Winners.

I was going to pick the winners of my 2 giveaways first thing this morning, but I didn't have a chance before I took off for an all-day adoption workshop. Sorry if you've been waiting all day for this! Here we go ... drumroll, please ...

The winner of Blindness is:


The winner of Far World: Water Keep is:


Congratulations, ladies! If you'll send me your snail mail addresses (blogginboutbooks@gmail.com), I will pass them on to the books' publicist/author. Also, Wendi, if you will specify how you want J. Scott Savage to sign your book, I'll pass that info on to him as well. Thanks so much to those who entered. If you didn't win this time, don't despair - I should have another giveaway to announce in the next couple of days. Stay tuned!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Copout Ending, Bland Characters Sours New Thriller For Me

Have you ever wondered what would happen if Jesus returned to the Earth in the guise of some obscure human and began performing miracles? If you saw a man with Christ-like abilities on t.v. healing the sick, preaching love and warning against greed, what would you think? Would you fall on your knees, praising God, or would you shake your head and mumble, "Yeah, right?" What If ... ?, by Steve N. Lee, proposes this exact question.

The book opens on Christmas Eve, with reporter Mary Shelley standing outside a bar wondering if her life could possibly get any worse. Moments later, it does exactly that. When her drunk boyfriend slams on his brakes to avoid an oncoming car, Mary flies through the windshield. Next thing she knows, she's waking up in a hospital room. Although witnesses say a vagrant molested her while she was unconscious after the crash, she has no memories of the violation. In fact, despite the fact that she's covered in blood, Mary feels fine. Weirdly, the doctors can find nothing wrong with her - no cuts, no hemorraghing, no nothing. Weirder still, the diabetes she's fought her whole life seems to have disappeared. There's simply no explanation. All Mary can remember is the blue, blue eyes of the homeless man - what had he done? Attacked her or healed her?


The more she investigates this vagrant - a John Connolly - the more Mary becomes convinced of his healing power. As soon as he walks out of prison, she pounces, demanding answers. What she finds is a complex, intelligent man who desires only to be left alone. With visions of world peace dancing in her head, Mary convinces John to use his gift to help the sick. Her purposes are two-fold: not only will she have some small part in changing the world, but she will also get a career-making expose. So, the two embark on a covert healing mission. As they fly across the country visiting hospitals, Mary sees the miracles with her own eyes - John cures cancer-ridden children; erases Alzheimer's; and destroys tumors. With a gift like that, he could be making millions, but John wants nothing in return. He desires only that his actions help people.

Despite their efforts to keep their identities secret, John and Mary are soon mobbed by journalists, protestors and thrill-seekers. Jaded cop Ben Cale offers his security services. Thanks to John's healing powers, the trio become the guests of multi-millionaire Rashid Al-Alawi, who is eager to help with the business side of miracle-making. A reluctant mobster also joins forces, rounding out John's most intimate fan club. With Rashid's money they are able to fund all kinds of healing journeys. The only problem is that John's miracles seem to be attracting the wrong kind of attention - Non-Christians are enraged, religious leaders skeptical, even the President of the United States is starting to panic. Even Mary, who believes in John 100%, begins to think they've bitten off more than they can possibly chew. With terrorists on their tail, a mobster in their midst and John and Rashid meeting without the other members of the "team," her faith begins to falter.

When Mary stumbles across Rashid's hidden computer files, she's shocked at the plan he and John have been concocting. Is the healer really trying to save the world? Or is he more interested in amassing billions? Will his plan to topple government and cripple economies really relieve the poor? Or is it the crazy dream of a raving lunatic? By exposing his secrets, Mary could lose everything, including the only man she has ever loved. Godly or greedy? She has to decide before the whole world comes crashing down around her.

Even though What If ... ? bears some resemblance to Jodi Picoult's recent novel, Change of Heart, I still think the idea of a modern-day Jesus makes for an interesting story. The book also makes excellent points about faith, tolerance and love. Despite its 70s cover, sloppy editing and unimaginative title, it's a much more intriguing book than it appears to be at first glance. My issues are really only with the story-telling. For one thing, I found the characters lacking in both personality and charm. John, especially, rubbed me the wrong way with his cold, smug attitude. I also didn't feel any chemistry between the main players. Furthermore, the plot felt contrived - Mary just happens to put all her trust into a convict who just happens to be a stand-up guy; after years of laying low, Mary just happens to be able to convince John to come out of hiding; the two just happen to meet a multi-millionaire willing to fund their operation; Mary follows after John like a puppy dog, without having to worry about work, family or any obligation whatsoever. To me, the characters' motives weren't strong enough, and 2 and 2 just didn't always equal 4. Still, I was prepared to give the story a grade in the B range until I came to the grand finale. Sam Houston warned readers not to read the ending first, and I'm glad I didn't, because I loathed it. I would not have opened this book at all if I had realized what a copout ending awaited me. Ugh. After reading 349 pages (with some serious sag in the middle), I think I deserved something more satisfying.

Like Picoult's book, this one made me think. It's nowhere near as subtle and effective as Change of Heart, but it makes readers ask the same kinds of questions. Even though it's preachy, I like its message of peace and love. It's also a fast, compelling read that some people really liked (check out its Amazon reviews here). However, the crap ending coupled with bland characters just soured this book for me. My advice? Stick with the Picoult.

Grade: C

Thursday, October 09, 2008

One Last Giveaway Reminder

I just wanted to remind you all that tomorrow is the LAST day for my giveaway of Blindness and Far World: Water Keep. If you missed the original post, check it out here. You must leave a comment by tomorrow at midnight to be entered. FYI: These books will be mailed directly from the authors/publicists, so only those with mailing addresses in U.S. or Canada are eligible.

Here are two more giveaways that look interesting:

- The Literate Housewife is giving away a copy of The Witch's Trinity by Erika Mailman. All the info is here.

- Enter to win a copy of Losing Kei by Suzanne Kumata over at Diary of an Eccentric. Get the details here.

Good luck with all the drawings. Stay tuned this weekend for 2 reviews, the names of my giveaway winners, and another great giveaway. You won't want to miss it!

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Quirky, Eerie Quality Makes Into the Woods a Spooky, Unputdownable Delight

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

If you're frightened by tales of hungry wolves chasing little girls, gingerbread houses with kid-sized ovens, and pied pipers enslaving youngsters, you should probably stop reading now. Seriously. Lyn Gardner's twisted fairytale Into the Woods is not for you. If, however, you're brave enough to endure (or - gasp!- enjoy) these morbid little stories, read on - I think I just discovered the perfect Halloween read for you.

Into the Woods steals elements from a bunch of fairytales, weaving the pieces into a unique and creepy little story. Our heroines are three sisters - Storm, Aurora and Anything ("Any" for short) Eden. When their mother dies, their grief-stricken father deserts them, leaving the girls to fend for themselves. Besides an empty pantry and a debt to the milkman, their parents leave them nothing with which to make their way. Well, Storm's mother did entrust her with an old musical pipe, but that hardly counts. After all, it's just a useless old trinket. Obviously, her mother was delirious when she begged Storm to "look after it ... Whatever you do, don't let it fall into the wrong hands" (40). Storm thinks nothing more of it, until the sinister Dr. DeWilde comes knocking on her door. An exterminator by trade, the nasty man rules the countryside, due largely to the wolves that shadow his every move. As powerful as the villain is, there is one thing he needs: Storm's pipe. Although she can't fathom why Dr. DeWilde would want such an unremarkable toy, she knows she cannot give it to him. With slavering wolves hot on her trail, Storm grabs her sisters and flees into the woods. She knows she must protect the pipe that throbs with life against Storm's skin.

Knowing they can't go home, the trio creep through the forest until they arrive hungry and tired at a quaint gingerbread house. Aurora and Any never want to leave, but Storm knows her sister's glazed looks and constant desire for "granulated happiness" (369) mean there's something sour going on in the palace of sweets. Her shocking discovery throws her into frantic action. Not only must she rescue her sisters, but she must do everything in her power to keep the pipe from DeWilde's greedy hands.

When Any becomes a prisoner of the exterminator, Storm and Aurora know what they have to do - take the long, dangerous journey to Piper's Peak. The very idea of confronting DeWilde has them quaking in their boots, but they know it's the only way to save their baby sister and stop the evil piper. It's not an easy trek, of course. Along the way, they face ferocious wolves, a mad ogress, an eerie ghost town, a swirling blizzard and the pied piper himself. As magical as the pipe turns out to be, it's the girls' bravery and devotion to each other that sustains them. Although the trio vows to stay together "Forever and Always," Dr. DeWilde has very, very different plans for the sisters. Can Storm save her family? Can she defeat the wily piper? Or will her sisters become Dr. DeWilde's slaves for eternity? The fate of all lies in the hands of the reckless, quick-tempered Storm and her little tin pipe.

I can't quite capture the essence of this book. It's like a combination of Lord of the Rings and The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly with a bit of A Series of Unfortunate Events and a pinch of Coraline thrown in for good measure. Into the Woods just has those eerie, quirky qualities that make it different, creepy and fun. You probably shouldn't read it at night, and you definitely won't want to start it if you don't have time to finish it right away. Simply put, Into the Woods is a spooky, unputdownable delight.

Grade: B+

Saturday, October 04, 2008

A Gazillion Giveaways

I know I'm not the only one who feels guilty about clearing my blog feeder without actually reading all the new posts it announces. Actually, I don't know how to clear mine with 1 click, so I just spent an hour going through them. I admit I skimmed most, but my feeder is now clear. Yay! One thing I noticed in my perusing is that there are TONS of giveaways going on right now. I'm going to list the ones I've seen. If I missed yours, leave me a comment. There are so many chances to win, you better get on your horse and enter:

- Of course, you should enter my drawings for Blindness by Jose Saramago and FarWorld by J. Scott Savage. All the info is here.

- You can also enter to win Blindness over at Bookroomreview's blog. Check it out here.

- Booking Mama is holding a drawing for Hannah's Dream by Diane Hammond. Enter here.

- Since it's BAFAB week, Chris is offering a book from a selection of 12, including The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaimain! Check it out here.

- April is giving away a signed ARC of The Diamond of Darkhold by Jeanne DuPrau.

- Dewey is offering a free book (winner's choice), plus several more drawings of politically-themed books. Dewey also wants to spread the word about the upcoming 24-Hour Read-A-Thon. Get all the details here.

- 5MinutesforBooks is also giving away the politically-themed books here.

- 200 Books is holding a drawing for The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists by Gideon DeFoe. Get all the info here.

- Nymeth has A Fine and Private Place by Peter Beagle up for grabs.

Phew!

__________
A couple more things:
- If you're a Kate Jacobs fan (and I am), you'll be excited to know that a sequel to The Friday Night Knitting Club will be out on November 25. If you're interested in reading the first chapter, let me know and I'll hook you up!
- Kim L. gave me an I Heart Your Blog award. Thanks so much!
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Have a great weekend, everybody. I'll be watching the LDS General Conference, going to my kids' school Harvest Festival and reading a spooky little book called Into the Woods by Lyn Gardner. I should have a review up on Monday. Catch y'all later!

Friday, October 03, 2008

The Strand Prophecy Average ... Nothing More

Watch out, world - there's a new superhero in town. He's got an exoskeleton to protect him from bad guys, a missile cycle for zooming around the Earth, a floating command center as big as a city, and enough toys to turn James Bond permanently green with envy. He is Strand - a man, but so much more.


We meet this new superhero in J.B.B. Winner's book, The Strand Prophecy, the first in a new sci fi series. Since two of the authors (J.B.B. stands for Jeff, Brittany and Brianna - a father and his 13-year-old twin daughters) are teenagers, the book has been marketed as young adult. I don't get that, really, since there's only one teenaged character, and she spends little time "on stage." AnyWAY, here's the rest of the story ...

Like most superheroes-to-be, Strand begins life as an ordinary man. Steve Cutter. An anthropologist/technologist, Steve becomes so engrossed in his work that he cuts himself off from family and friends. He's so obsessed with his own technology that he tries some of his technology on himself. Soon, he begins changing. He is a man, but more (trust me - if you read this book, you will come to detest this phrase). Steve's new powers complicate things, especially when he gets custody of his 16-year-old niece after the deaths of her parents. To keep Anna safe, he must hide his secret identity from her.

When Steve receives news of strange creatures sighted in Brazil, he knows he needs to investigate. He's been convinced for some time that Earth is entering an "accelerated evolutionary cycle" - the blood-thirsty, barely human species he finds in South America is proof that normal humans are in very real danger. Strand knows he needs to warn people, but the U.S. government buries the story, vehemently denying that anything dangerous is happening. Strand knows the future of humanity is in his hands. Ignoring the president's orders to stand down, he sends a warning to the world - stay out of direct sunlight/moonlight, watch for animals acting strangely, and wait for messages from Strand.

Meanwhile, back at the lab ... Veternarian Dr. E studies the adaptations in humans and animals, trying to figure out what is happening. All she knows is that things are changing - she, herself, is changing. All around her, things are evolving. Some of the evolution is good, some not so good. She knows she's an integral part of creating a new brand of superhero to combat the new, violent species that are being created every day. She also knows she must help Steve (she doesn't know about Strand) protect the innocent, including the unwary Anna, who seems to be walking right into the realm of crazed T-Rex crocodiles. Can she and Strand save Anna? More importantly, can they save the world?

As you can see, The Strand Prophecy follows a very traditional sci fi plot - man finds out he has powers, man must hide his identity to protect those he loves, man/superhero must save the world. It's not very original (although I don't know that I've ever met a superhero who rides missiles). Plot, however, is not this book's biggest flaw - that would be the flat characters, bland writing, and stiff, unnatural dialogue. Point of view is all over the place, dipping into the minds of every character, including a Howler monkey. A plethora of dry scientific facts also made my eyes glaze over. The other thing that really bugged me was the hero's infallibility - with his machines, he could do anything. Even superheroes need some weaknesses to make them sympathetic and interesting.

On the bright side, the story moves pretty quickly. It's a fast read, and YA readers will probably enjoy the ride. For me, I wanted more dynamic writing, characters with personality (if the cast didn't use each other's name in every sentence, I would not have been able to tell their voices apart), and some realistic dialogue. Without these things, I couldn't lose myself in this novel. I wanted to like it, but honestly, I wouldn't have finished it if I hadn't committed to reviewing it. Sorry J.B.B. Winner, The Strand Prophecy is just average ... nothing more.

(As occasionally happens, reviewers on Amazon and Barnes & Noble disagree with my assessment of this book. Check out their comments for a different perspective.)

Grade: C



Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Farworld: The Fate of Two Lands Lie in the Hands of 2 Unlikely Heroes

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Thirteen year-old Marcus Kanenas appears to be the least likely hero in the world. Orphaned and crippled, he has little to rely on, except the wheelchair that helps him get around. Marcus' disabilities make him the target of school bullies who see him only as a freak. What the cruel boys don't realize is that nothing is ever as it seems, including their classmate. Disfigured though he may be, Marcus has unique abilities - he's determined, brave and just a little bit magic. So, when a strange creature disguised as a government agent approaches, Marcus is able to disappear long enough to distract the phony ... at least for a little while. Then, he feels himself being yanked so hard his stomach turns inside out and his whole world changes. He wakes up somewhere far, far away from the Arizona desert he's known all his life.

This, he comes to realize, is Farworld. It's a magical land where trees talk, horses tell corny jokes, lizards fly and wizards shape shift into wolves. Spells and sorcerers abound. Although it's unlike Earth in lots of ways, there's something familiar about it - it's a place Marcus has dreamed of hundreds of times. Has he leapt inside his imagination or, as strange as it seems, has he actually been in Farworld before? When he interrogates his new friend, Kyja, he learns little that makes sense. Only three things are apparent: the pair are connected; their worlds parallel each other somehow; and they must save both Earth and Farworld from the evil that could destroy them both.

Thus begins Farworld: Water Keep, the first in a new YA fantasy series by J. Scott Savage. In this, the debut novel, Marcus discovers that he is the hero of Farworld's legends, the man who allegedly saves the land from the Dark Lord who seeks to rule it. He learns that Master Therapass, a kindly old wizard, swapped Marcus and Kyja at birth in an attempt to hide Marcus from his enemies. Now that the evil ones have found him, they won't stop until they have Marcus in their clutches. As Marcus and Kyja flee from a host of nightmarish creatures, they hatch a crazy plan: If they can reach each of the Elementals - beings representing fire, water, land and air - they can open a rift between their worlds, return Kyja to her proper home, and save both their worlds. The problem? Elementals can be a little ... uncooperative. Still, it's their only chance.

Their first objective: Convince the rulers of Water Keep to aid them in their quest. Easier said than done. Their journey takes them past a sinister Summoner, into a forest full of trees with uncertain motives, to an underground prison, into the talons of an enormous ice dragon and into an icy wonderland where humans are decidedly unwelcome. It's a harrowing journey that will try Marcus and Kyja to the very core of their beings. Along the way, they will make important discoveries about themselves, each other, and the true nature of magic. Oh yeah, and they will jump back and forth between worlds with dizzying frequency, take on some truly sinister beings, and fight for justice in two increasingly apathetic worlds.

Although Farworld: Water Keep packs plenty of action into its pages, I had a bit of trouble getting into it. I found the beginning a little disparate and confusing. By about Chapter 5, however, I was completely hooked. The characters don't exactly leap off the page, but they develop into an interesting and endearing cast. Archetypal characters border on cliche, but Savage also introduces some wholly original creatures. I was especially entranced with Water Keep - I loved the descriptions of the city as well as those of its residents and rulers. The writing could have been tighter and I would have liked better character development, but all in all, I enjoyed this fun romp through a fantastical world full of twists, turns and (mostly) delightful surprises. Savage is no J.K. Rowling or C.S. Lewis, but he's not bad. Not bad at all.

Grade: B+

Giveaways Galore *Updated*

Thanks to everyone who entered the drawing for Don't Know Much About ... Anything Else by Kenneth C. Davis. Random.org chose the winner - it is:


Congratulations! I just need your snail mail address and I will send your book out ASAP.

If you didn't win this time, don't worry. I have two more giveaways to announce. You can enter both - all you need to do is comment on this post. Please specify which book you are interested in, or you can just indicate that you want to enter both contests. Good luck! Deadline to enter both giveaways is midnight on October 10. Here's the info on the books:

Patrick from Mammoth Advertising sent me an extra copy of Blindness by Nobel Prize-winning author Jose Saramago. The movie will be coming out on Wednesday, and it looks excellent. You can watch trailers and get more info on the movie's official website. Since I haven't had time to read the novel yet, I'll give you the blurb from the back of the book:

A city is hit by an epidemic of "white blindness" that spares no one. Authorities confine the blind to an empty mental hospital, but there the criminal element holds everyone captive, stealing food rations and assaulting women. There is one eyewitness to this nightmare who guides seven strangers - among them a boy with no mother, a girl with dark glasses, a dog of tears - through the barren streets, and the procession becomes as uncanny as the surroundings are harrowing. A magnificent parable of loss and disorientation and a vivid evocation of the horrors of the twentieth century, Blindness is a powerful portrayal of man's worst appetites and weaknesses - and man's ultimately exhilarating spirit.

Kind of gives you goosebumps, huh?


The second book I'm giving away is J. Scott Savage's Farworld: Water Keep, the first in a new YA fantasy series. Many of you have reviewed this one, so it probably doesn't need much of an introduction. Basically, it's the story of two unlikely heroes who embark on a dangerous quest to unite the elements of water, fire, land and air - all in an effort to save two very different, but very connected, worlds. I really enjoyed the read. My review will be up today or tomorrow. I'll also be interviewing the author in the near future, so watch for that. Scott is giving away a signed ARC of his book, so if you haven't won a copy yet, you're going to want to enter.

*Both contests are open only to residents of the U.S. and Canada. Publishers won't ship overseas. Sorry :(

As always, there are more reviews and giveaways to come, so stay tuned!

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