Friday, August 29, 2008

Say Goodbye - Lisa Gardner

I've read and enjoyed Gardner's last 5 or 6 books. She's turned into a really good suspense/thriller writer similar to Harlen Coben. So I picked up this one on the strength of her name without bothering to read the flyleaf.

Kimberly Quincy is a pregnant FBI agent. Delilah Rose -a young informant who works as a prostitute tells her that other working girls are going missing. And she thinks it has something to do with a john who has a fascination with spiders. Lots and lots of spiders.

A fellow cop on the Evidence Response Team thinks Delilah Rose may be right. He's been trying to work the case on his own. They join forces to try and catch the elusive Mr. Dinchara (anagram for arachnid). What Kimberly doesn't realize is that the spider man seems to have her already in his sites.

A back story is introduced in italics. These stories are the parts I found a bit disturbing. Went back to the flyleaf and sure enough there is no mention of this part of the story. The italized story deals with fairly graphic sexual child abuse.

In the acknowledgments at the end of the book, Gardner does recognize that this is the most violent and difficult book she has written. Some of the crimes are pulled from recent headlines.

Gardner writes great suspense. I enjoy the characters and the personal element she introduces in them make them seem more real. There's a couple of good twists that will keep you guessing till the end.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Confessions of a Carb Queen - Susan Blech

Okay it was the picture of the donut that caught my eye first. And then I read the back cover. Susan Blech went from a body builder to a woman who weighed 468 pounds. This book is the story of how she lost 250 pounds without resorting to surgery.

Co-written with her sister, it a soul baring, no holds barred memoir. Blech exposes her life for all to see. She is extremely candid - no topic is off limits.

This was a quick, fascinating read. I was struck by her honesty,courage and determination. Today Blech is a motivational weight loss speaker. You can follow along at her blog.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Everything Under the Sky - Matilde Asensi

Matilde Asensi's novels are originally written in Spanish. Her previous novel The Last Cato was an international bestseller. Her latest novel, Everything Under the Sun ,is newly released from Harper Collins Canada.

Elvira DePoulain is a middle aged artist living in Paris in 1923. Although she has not lived with her husband Remy in twenty years, they are on good terms. When she receives notice that he has passed away, she travels to China with her orphaned young niece Fernanda to settle his affairs. When she arrives she is stunned by what awaits her. Remy died heavily in debt and under French law, she is responsible for payment. Still in shock, she is further disturbed when Paddy, an Irish journalist tells her that her husband was not randomly killed by thieves but was murdered by the Green Gang, as they believed he possessed an ancient carved box. They did not find the box, but Elvira does. A Chinese antiquarian- Lao Jiang - explains the box holds clues to a wealth of treasure. He persuades her to accompany him on the quest. She agrees as she needs the money to pay off Remy's debts.

Asensi does a wonderful job with descriptions of China and it's culture. Particularily fascinating are the explanations of the concepts of Tao and Feng Shui. Her puzzles are well thought out and rival any adventure book of this type- The Da Vinci Code for example.

Where I found myself wanting more was in the characters themselves. Although Elvira is portrayed as a strong, independent woman who grows even more along the trek, I just didn't buy it. Her pronouncements seem forced and awkwardly placed, especially those dealing with her niece. Much more interesting was Fernanda and the young servant boy Biao. Their youthful enthusiasm and intelligence came across as much more realistic. Lao Jiang seems to be written as a bit of a caricature, as does Paddy the Irishman. We know Lao Jiang is not quite what he seems with his brooding silences and taciturn manner.

All in all, not a bad read, but not as good as I would have hoped. Looking for something similar? Try James Rollins.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Made in the U.S.A. - Billie Letts

I've read all of Billie Letts' novels to this point. You may have heard of her first one - 'Where the Heart Is'- a New york Times bestseller, an Oprah pick and also made into a movie starring Natalie Portman. It is the story of a young pregnant teen who lives in the local Wal Mart.

Made in the U.S.A. returns to Wal Mart. Lutie and Fate McFee's father ran off to Las Vegas a year ago, leaving them behind with his girlfriend Floy. While shopping at the local Wal Mart, Floy drops dead. Fifteen year old Lutie decides that they shouldn't wait around for social services to put them into foster care, so they take Floy's car and head off to Vegas to find their dad.

With little money and unable to find their dad, they try to survive in Sin City. Some unknown good Samaritan seems to be watching out for them, leaving food and notes on the hood of the car they're living in - but it's not enough. Lutie and Fate are soon subjected to the ugly side of Vegas.

I'll stop there without going any further into the plot and spoiling the tale.

Letts' hallmark seems to be that family is not always biological. This theme was also the basis for 'The Honk and Holler Opening Soon'. And it's done well again in Made in the U.S.A.

Although it becomes somewhat predicable as to what's going to happen in the end, it is still an enjoyable, feel good read that will have you cheering for Lutie and Fate and the resilience of the human spirit.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Hardly Knew Her: Stories - Laura Lippman

Add this one to your 'coming soon' list!Hardly Knew Her will be released by Harper Collins Canada on September 24th.

I'm a diehard fan of Laura Lippman and her Baltimore P.I. Tess Monaghan series. This collection displays a completely fresh and different side of Lippman's writing.

The stories are divided into three parts - Girls Gone Wild, Other Cities, Not My Own and My Baby Walks the Streets of Baltimore.

The first story is 'The Crack Cocaine Diet'. Two suburban girls decide that cocaine would be the best method to lose weight quickly. It starts off rather funny but where this story goes is completely unexpected.

'One True Love' is the story of a Heloise, a suburban prostitute who will do anything to keep her private and public life separated. Heloise and her sister Meghan are the subjects of the novella at the end of the book. I was captured by the character of Heloise and privately hope she pops up in future novels. I think we haven't even begun to see what she and her sister are capable of.

There are stories featuring Tess. The best is an interview of Tess Monaghan by Laura Lippman for the Baltimore Beacon-Light. Tantalizing snippets of information about Tess's life are sprinkled throughout.

Pony Girl is a truly frightening story. This story takes place in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. A young man decides he should keep his eye on two young women so they don't get hurt. What he ends up seeing....well I don't want to spoil the ending.

Oh and the one about senior citizen porn......and what to do with that cheating husband?

Lippman has written in many different voices - old, young and yes a few male protagonists- and characters as well as new locales.

Each story 'hooked' me. I never knew what to expect - each story was a guess as to where Lippman was going to go with it. All are wonderfully different but all showcase Lippman's marvelous talent as a writer. If you haven't read Lippman yet, this would be a great place to start.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Back in 6 Years - Tony Robinson-Smith

Subtitled - A Journey Around the Planet Without Leaving the Surface.

Tony Robinson-Smith has been teaching English in Japan for five years when he suddenly decides he's had enough. (having sung the only 2 english songs on the karaoke list at a bar over and over again may have helped swing his decison...)

He decides he will not travel by air at any time and heads back to England to begin his journey. With no firm plan, he hitchhikes his way through France and Spain without issue. Things get really interesting when he attempts to cross the Sahara and transverse Algeria. (Always take extra water....) He winds his way throughout Africa, reaches Cape Town and tries to figure out how to sell himself as an experienced (read none) seaman to cross the Atlantic. Each chapter is prefaced with a map tracing the route he is taking. I found it interesting to follow along.

And so his journey continues - around South America and up into North America. Although I found the entire book engrossing, I really enjoyed the chapters dealing with Canada. Tony decides to bicycle across Canada going east to west. However he starts out in April. Canucks will realize we can still get snow at this time - especially in the Maritimes.

"When would Canada warm up. No wonder ninety per cent of the bloody population lives huddled along the U.S. border"

It is also in Canada that he meets Nadya. Nadya joins Tony when he reaches the Asian part of his journey. The journey slows down a bit here and we are treated to more leisurely and detailed chapters.

All in all, Robinson-Smith manages to touch base in fifty-five countries. This book was written from his notes and journals. As an armchair tourist, I was enthralled by tales of places most of us will never visit. The locales he explores and people he meets are fascinating.

Most remarkable is that he achieves his goal - he never flies. But the whole adventure takes six years! Not many people would see this through to the end. Interestingly he is now teaching English in Bhutan. Wonder if there's a story there?

Yet another great memoir from Goose Lane Editions. Thanks to MiniBookExpo for the opportunity to read and review this book!

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Queen of Babble Gets Hitched - Meg Cabot

Okay so you're saying to yourself - " Isn't she the one who writes the Princess Diaries for younger readers?"

Well yes you're right - but Meg Cabot also writes a number of novels geared towards adults.

This novel is the sequel to The Queen of Babble and Queen of Babble in the Big City.

Lizzie Nichols is finally engaged to Luke, which is what she's always wanted - right? Then why is she so attracted to Chaz - Luke's best friend? And why can't her mother understand why she doesn't want to have her wedding in their backyard instead of Luke's family estate in France? At least her career - restoring wedding dresses - is going well. Or it was until the owners of the shop have to leave her on her own for a while and chaos breaks out.

You get the idea - this is just a really great chick lit read. Cabot's writing is fresh and funny. Everyone can identify with Lizzie -she tries to please everyone, has a hard time not saying what she thinks and worries constantly about almost everything. Cabot has created an endearing, lovable character that you just want to cheer for.

You could read this novel as a stand alone, but I think you would find it so much funnier to start at the beginning.

Fans of Sophie Kinsella would also enjoy this series.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Corpse Will Keep - Pat Capponi

I first discovered Pat Capponi when I picked up a copy of Last Stop Sunnyside and have eagerly awaited the next novel in the engaging Dana Leoni series. Harper Collins Canada has just released The Corpse Will Keep.

Dana lives in a rooming house in Toronto. She moved there to hide out after a brutal assault and subsequent descent into depression forced her to abandon her studies at university. She lives with an eclectic group of characters. To most, they are on the fringes of society, mentally, socially, emotionally and medically challenged. They banded together in Last Stop Sunnyside to solve the disappearance of one of their housemates. This common goal gave them new focus and purpose in life. Now Dana is studying for her private investigator license and there is a "Dana Leoni - PI" sign on the door.

A television report on their case prompts Bernie, an old university friend of Dana's, to contact her. His mother Anna has become reclusive in the last few months and is clearing out her bank accounts. Bernie suspects that her behaviour might have something to do with the charity work she was doing.

"I need someone who can fit in anywhere...I need someone I can trust". And so they have an actual paying case.

The detail and understanding that Capponi brings to her dialogues, interactions and settings is authentic. Capponi is writing from experience, having survived the very situations she writes about. She is now one of Canada's leading mental health care advocates. For many readers, the details of living conditions will be an eye opener. The novels are set in Toronto's Parkdale neighbourhood.

This is not to say that the books are dark and humourless. They are funny as well. How do you tail someone when your bus pass has expired?

Capponi deftly portrays the lives of a marginalized group of society while at the same time providing us with an entertaining witty tale. She has managed to write an intriguing mystery that could be pulled from today's headlines using the most unlikely band of sleuths.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Falling Under - Danielle Younge-Ullman

Oh boy - where to start?! Danielle Younge-Ullman's debut novel Falling Under grabs you from the first page and just doesn't let go until you reluctantly turn the last.

Falling Under opens with a gut-wrenching scene in which a little girl - Mara- witnesses the ugly end of her parent's marriage. And discovers that there is no Santa Claus.

Fast forward to the present. Mara is a grown woman now. She is an artist working from home - as she has trouble leaving the house. She imagines every bad thing that might happen and becomes paralyzed with fear. Her social circle is limited to her best friend Bernadette and her agent. Bernadette is active and outgoing, always involved in a social cause. Mara is one of her causes.

"Bernadette is saving the world. I can barely save myself".

She also has a love/hate relationship with Erik, her lover, who she only sees when she feels like she's on the edge of a precipice. Erik is emotionally damaged as well.

The story alternates between present and past. As young Mara grows older we learn more and more of how she came to be trapped in the small world she inhabits and why she is unable to function normally.

Younge-Ullman has uncannily captured the hurt, the betrayal, the angst and the despair of Mara. The descriptions and dialogues of her dysfunctional family and relationships are raw and unsettling.

Mara uses her body to please others and punish herself. While some readers may be disturbed by the sexual scenes, they are integral to the plot.

When Mara meets a man she thinks she can love, the two stories collide and we learn the full history behind Mara's inability to love and let herself be loved.

"Certain memories, certain thoughts, are holes....Holes ripped in you, through which precious things escape and leave you wanting, needing, gaping open......And you are left empty, a skeleton, a shell with wind rushing through you and a sensation of sinking, barely existing..."

No spoiler - but I loved the ending - it kept me thinking long after I finished reading.

Falling Under is a outstanding debut from this bright new Canadian author. This intense, edgy novel would generate lots of discussion for a book club.

Younge-Ullman is also part of a group of debut authors who regularly 'grog' (group blog) at The Debutante Ball.

Friday, August 8, 2008

No Such Thing as a Free Ride? - Simon Sykes & Tom Sykes

-Subtitled: A Collection of Hitchhiking Tales - North American Edition from Goose Lane Editions.

What a fantastic idea this was- to collect stories, memoirs, observations, folklore and ideas about hitchhiking and compile them. Tom and Simon Sykes are father and son from England. Their first compilation was the British edition of No Such Thing as a Free Ride?

This book was broken down into wonderfully inventive categories on hitchhiking. Being broken down into articles of varying lengths allowed me to pick and choose what to read. First I devoured "You Had to Be There - Strange and Amusing Events", followed closely by "I Hadn't Thought this One Through - Misjudgements and Miscalculations".

But honestly every article is a great read. I was fascinated with people's experiences on the road. Some good, some bad, some downright scary, but all with a view as to how hitchhiking touched their lives.

There is a great appendix at the back with a listing of references to hitchhiking in websites, books, music and film.

And who contributed to this collection? A wonderfully diverse bunch of folks including author Piers Anthony and musician Randy Bachman to name a few.

Hitchhiking is a somewhat scary proposition nowadays from both sides - picking up and getting in. But who hasn't stuck out their thumb at least once? And has a story to tell about it? The Sykes are still collecting stories and essays. Got one you'd like to contribute? Contact them here.

And thanks to MiniBookExpo
for the opportunity to read and review this book.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Recipes of a Dumb Housewife- Lorina Stephens

My husband is quite used to seeing a pile of books on the kitchen table waiting for review. However this one caught his eye - " A cookbook!" - and so I had to wait my turn to read this book from Five Rivers Chapmanry.

"Recipes" is conveniently divided into categories - suppers, soups, pasta, sweet tooth, breads, salads and a few more. I have to admit it - I skipped right to sweet tooth!

Many of Lorina's recipes have been developed over time with an eye towards nutrition, flavour, time and budget. Not one to let something go to waste, she has developed recipes incorporating leftovers or what happened to be in the pantry at the time. She is both imaginative and frugal without forsaking taste. The result is a collection of unpretentious 'down-home' fare.

Now back to that sweet tooth section. Citrus Cake was developed as a way to use up those oranges and grapefruits languishing in the crisper. As I happened to have some of those on hand, this was the first recipe I tried. Delicious and perfect with an afternoon cup of tea. I next tried " Really Bad For You Chocolate Orange Pie". Ohh but it was really really good!

My husband asked for the stuffed peppers - perfect as the garden is full of them right now. This recipe is also part of the Starving Student repertoire Lorina developed for her son when he went to university. My husband loved them.

Nutritional information is offered for each recipe.

Ohh, and about that title? Stephens is anything but a dumb housewife. She also writes fiction and is an artist who works with many mediums. She'll be on a virtual book tour this month - you can catch up with her here.

Many thanks to MiniBookExpo for the opportunity to review this book!

Monday, August 4, 2008

MoonPies and Movie Stars - Amy Wallen

The intriguing cover (and title!) of MoonPies and Movie Stars by Amy Wallen promises a rollicking good read and it did just that.

It's late 1960's in Devine, Texas.We meet the central character Ruby as she is preparing to decorate her bowling alley for a wedding reception the town's womenfolk are having to celebrate the wedding of their favourite soap opera's stars. As her sister Loralva and her daughter's mother in law Imogene and others arrive to help we get a real sense of the town, their relationships and temperaments from the dialogue. More than a few characters remind me of a few folks from my small town!

"Becca Ann has such a nice smile, and whenever I ask her to do anything she grins like she wouldn't rather do nothing else! What more could you ask for in a daughter-in-law?"

As they settle in to watch the wedding on television, Ruby is stunned to see her daughter Violet in a commercial. Violet has been missing for four years. She upped and left her husband Harley and children Bubbie and Bunny without a word. Ruby ended up taking in the kids to live with her. Both children have some issues - Bubbie is fascinated with roadkill and Bunny is never without her Mrs. Beasley doll.

Ruby decides to go to Hollywood and find Violet. Loralva is going as well- to help find Violet - but also to fulfill her dream of meeting Bob Barker and being on the Price is Right game show. Harley's mother Imogene invites herself along, as she is thrilled to now be related to someone famous, plus they need her Winnebago to make the trip.

MoonPies and Movie Stars is an absolutely charming novel. Ruby is someone you wished you knew - she has a heart of gold and the determination to see anything through. There are lots of comedic moments and situations - especially when they arrive in Hollywood. But there is also a deeper thread running though the story. What is family and what makes a mother? Wallen deftly mixes the humorous and the poignant with Southern charm.

An absolute gem of a first novel, MoonPies and Movie Stars will appeal to fans of Fannie Flagg and Billie Letts. I'm looking forward to the next one!

As to the title - well MoonPies are a favourite Texas snack and play a pivotal role in this tale. And to my Canadian readers - as near as I can figure MoonPies are a first cousin to Wagon Wheels.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Stealing Athena - Karen Essex

I was immediately captured by the beautiful cover art of Stealing Athena by Karen Essex, released by Random House.

This story is told from the viewpoints of two women in two different periods of history whose lives are touched by the same priceless art.

Lady Mary Elgin is a young, wealthy, pregnant twenty one year old who accompanies her husband on his mission as England's ambassador to Turkey in 1799. Lord Elgin has a burning desire to literally bring the beauty of Greek sculpture and architecture back to Britain. He sets his sights on the city of Athens, the Parthenon and the many sculptures dedicated to the goddess Athena. Mary is vibrant and outgoing. She uses her beguiling ways (and her money) to benefit and further her husband's cause.

Aspasia is living in Athens at the height of the Golden Age - the time of the building of the Parthenon and many monuments and temples by Pheidias. She is the courtesan of Pericles -one of the leaders of the city of Athens. She is also a philosopher and although never fully accepted by the Athenians, she provides counsel to many of them.

I don't usually read this time period, but I found myself entranced with the exquisite detail that Essex has infused her work with. I then skipped to the back of the book and discovered that Lady Elgin is not a fictional character and the deconstruction of the Parthenon by her husband really took place. Much of Mary's fictionalized life is based upon her actual journals.

More chapters are devoted to Mary's life and this is the character I enjoyed the most. Her determination, will and drive are inspiring - even more so considering the time period she lived in . Although I enjoyed Aspasia's chapters as well, I found myself glossing over some of the detailed descriptions.

There are many parallels between Aspasia and Mary's lives - the role of women in a male dominated society being one of the foremost. However the extraordinary way both use their strong personalities to deal with these constraints are similar as well. The men in the stories are portrayed well also. I really ended up despising Lord Elgin and his cavalier treatment of not just Mary but the Greek countrymen who did not want their heritage removed.

Stealing Athena features a fascinating fictionalization of historical events. Fans of Emma Donoghue would enjoy Stealing Athena.