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January 26, 2015

Belzhar



Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer
Teen Fiction
2014 Penguin Young Readers Group
Finished on December 18, 2014
Rating: 2.5/5 (Fair)

 


Publisher’s Blurb:

"Wolitzer has imagined a world for young readers that celebrates the sacred, transcendent power of reading and writing." —The New York Times Book Review

A PW Best Book of 2014

There’s a place where the lost go to be found.

If life were fair, Jam Gallahue would still be at home in New Jersey with her sweet British boyfriend, Reeve Maxfield. She’d be watching old comedy sketches with him. She’d be kissing him in the library stacks.

She certainly wouldn’t be at The Wooden Barn, a therapeutic boarding school in rural Vermont, signed up for an exclusive, supposedly life-changing class called Special Topics in English that focuses—only and entirely—on the works of Sylvia Plath.

But life isn’t fair. Reeve has been gone for almost a year and Jam is still mourning.

When a journal-writing assignment leads Jam into a mysterious other world she and her classmates call Belzhar, she discovers a realm where the untainted past is restored, and she can feel Reeve’s arms around her once again. But, as the pages of her journal begin to fill up, Jam must to confront hidden truths and ultimately decide what she’s willing to sacrifice to reclaim her loss.

From New York Times bestselling author Meg Wolitzer comes a breathtaking and surprising story about first love, deep sorrow, and the power of acceptance.

It’s always helpful, as a bookseller, to have a few new teen books read before the holidays. After reading several glowing reviews for Meg Wolitzer’s Belzhar, I decided to give it a try. I was immediately drawn into the story, but never got that magical feeling you get when reading a great novel. I grew tired of the drama between Jam and Reeve, in their newly discovered world, and I only continued reading out of simple curiosity. I also didn’t care for the plot twist at the end of the novel, which left me feeling somewhat manipulated.

Final Thoughts:

There are many readers (young and old) who loved this book but, unfortunately, I am not one of them. The lack of character development, the unbelievable dialogue, and the feeble attempt at magical realism left me cold and disappointed. I also recently listened to a large portion of Wolitzer’s novel, The Interestings, but after several hours I decided to call it quits, even after giving it a second chance when the first time didn’t grab me. It may be safe to say that this author isn’t for me.

January 25, 2015

Sounding Off on Audio




I've been a longtime follower of Bookreporter.com and each weekend I look forward to their weekly newsletter, eager to read Carol Fitzgerald's latest thoughts about future and new releases, author news, and my favorite feature, Bets On, which has led me to some of my all-time favorite books. 

Seven years ago, one of my family recipes was mentioned on Bookreporter.com (I wrote about it here) and this week I have the pleasure of being one of the featured contributors to Bookreporter.com's Sounding Off on Audio. I've become a huge fan of audiobooks and enjoyed sharing my thoughts and recommendations. Check it out!

A Conversation with Lesley Scher

Lesley Scher, a bookseller for a major brick-and-mortar retailer, is lucky enough to have her dream job. She loves sharing her favorite books with customers, family and friends...and ever since she got hooked on audiobooks, that list has grown! True to form, Lesley shares some pretty stellar books here, guaranteed to amp up your listening. She also describes the strange way time seems to speed up when you’re listening to a good audiobook, and why sometimes it’s better to listen alone.

Question: How long have you been listening to audiobooks?

Lesley Scher: I’ve been listening for about 15 years, starting in 2000.

Q: What made you start listening?

LS: A friend recommended that I listen to the Harry Potter series, so when a trip to San Antonio from Fort Worth came up, I decided to give the audiobook a try. It helped to pass the time, and I fell in love with Jim Dale’s voice, eager to listen at every opportunity. I was hooked!

Click here to read my entire interview.

January 24, 2015

Rustic Italian Gnocchi Soup


I can't remember the last time I made so much soup! January has been bitterly cold (although this week looks great, with temps in the 50s and low 60s!), so coming home to a pot of steaming hot soup has been wonderful and a welcome change to our usual weeknight menu.

Once again, I turned to The Skinnytaste Cookbook and chose this recipe after scanning the ingredients. Other than a sample taste of a friend's gnocchi at a restaurant last month, I've never had gnocchi. This recipe calls for a 16 oz. package, so I decided to give it a try.


Rustic Italian Gnocchi Soup


1/2 cup cold water
3 Tbsp. all-purpose flour

1/2 cup water for soup
14 oz. fresh sweet Italian chicken sausage, casings removed
4 1/2 cups Swanson 33% less sodium chicken broth
1 cup fat-free milk
1 small onion, chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
Rind from Parmigiano-Reggiano (optional)
2 large roasted red bell peppers, jarred or homemade
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper, plus more as needed
1 (16-oz.) package of gnocchi
3 cups baby spinach, chopped
2 Tbsp. chopped fresh basil
Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, for serving (optional)

In a small bowl, make a slurry by whisking together 1/2 cup cold water and the flour.

Heat a large nonstick pot over medium heat. Add the sausage (casings removed) and cook, using a wooden spoon to break the meat into small pieces, until cooked through and slightly browned, 4 minutes.

Add 1/2 cup water, broth, and milk and bring to boil. Add the onion, celery, carrot, garlic, Parmesan rind (if using), roasted peppers, and black pepper and return to a boil. Partially cover the pot, reduce the heat to low and simmer until the vegetables are soft, 15 to 20 minutes. Uncover, slowly stir in the slurry, and continue stirring while the soup returns to a boil.

Add the gnocchi, spinach, and basil. Cook until the gnocchi starts to float to the top and become puffy (or according to the gnocchi package directions) and the soup thickens. Season with black pepper to taste. Discard the Parmesan cheese rind. Ladle the soup into individual soup bowls and sprinkle evenly with grated Parmesan, if desired.

Serves 8

My Notes:

I used Italian pork sausage and 2% milk. So much for skinnytaste. ;)

I cooked the sausage much longer, probably 10 minutes. Once it was cooked, I dumped it in a colander to drain off the fat (into a separate bowl) and then blotted the cooked meat with paper towels, before returning it to the soup pot.

I didn't use the Parmesan rind, although I'd like to try it next time.

I used jarred roasted bell peppers and need to remember to cut them into bite-sized pieces next time I make this soup.

Neither of us cared for the gnocchi. We decided, after removing the remaining gnocchi, to use potatoes (peeled, quartered and parboiled) for our leftovers. Much better!

I didn't bother chopping the spinach leaves.

I didn't have fresh basil, so I threw in a tablespoon of dried.

Next time around, I will use 2 stalks of celery and 2 carrots.

Please visit Beth Fish Reads for Weekend Cooking.
Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend.

January 23, 2015

Olive Kitteridge


Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Fiction
2008 Random House
Finished on November 26, 2014
Rating: 4.5/5 (Terrific!)
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize




Publisher’s Blurb:

At times stern, at other times patient, at times perceptive, at other times in sad denial, Olive Kitteridge, a retired schoolteacher, deplores the changes in her little town of Crosby, Maine, and in the world at large, but she doesn’t always recognize the changes in those around her: a lounge musician haunted by a past romance; a former student who has lost the will to live; Olive’s own adult child, who feels tyrannized by her irrational sensitivities; and her husband, Henry, who finds his loyalty to his marriage both a blessing and a curse.

As the townspeople grapple with their own problems, mild and dire, Olive is brought to a deeper understanding of herself and her life—sometimes painfully, but always with ruthless honesty. Olive Kitteridge offers profound insights into the human condition—its conflicts, its tragedies and joys, and the endurance it requires.

A few years ago, I tried to listen the audio version of Olive Kitteridge, but I was so bored, I quickly gave it up. I was disappointed that such a popular book had left me cold and disinterested, but I had a print edition on my shelf that I just wasn’t ready to get rid of. I really did want to give it another chance after hearing so many of my trusted friends rave about it. When I saw the preview for the HBO mini-series, starring Frances McDormand, I knew it was time to give it another try.

Elizabeth Strout’s collection of 13 stories is set in Maine, centered loosely around Olive Kitteridge. Each vignette is filled with an overwhelming sense of melancholy, as the individual characters struggle with their own challenges in life, and by the end of the fourth chapter, I was beginning to wonder if I wanted to continue reading. I’m so glad I did, as this book turned out to be one of my favorite reads of 2014!

I fell in love with Strout’s writing, re-reading passages two or three times in one sitting, the characters and setting coming alive on the page, so vivid in my mind's eye that I hope the movie lives up to my expectations.

On Morning Drives:
For many years Henry Kitteridge was a pharmacist in the next town over, driving every morning on snowy roads, or rainy roads, or summertime roads, when the wild raspberries shot their new growth in brambles along the last section of town before he turned off to where the wider road led to the pharmacy. Retired now, he still wakes early and remembers how mornings used to be his favorite, as though the world were his secret, tires rumbling softly beneath him and the light emerging through the early fog, the brief sight of the bay off to his right, then the pines, tall and slender, and almost always he rode with the window partly open because he loved the smell of the pines and the heavy salt air, and in the winter he loved the smell of the cold.

I didn’t care for Olive when she was first introduced in the stories, but she began to grow on me and I found myself feeling sympathetic toward her and her disappointments in life, in spite of her brash, outspoken personality. This woman has no filter!

On Hope:
And then as the little plane climbed higher and Olive saw spread out below them fields of bright and tender green in this morning sun, farther out the coastline, the ocean shiny and almost flat, tiny white wakes behind a few lobster boats—then Olive felt something she had not expected to feel again: a sudden surging of greediness for life. She leaned forward, peering out the window: sweet pale clouds, the sky as blue as your hat, the new green of the fields, the broad expanse of water—seen from up here it all appeared wondrous, amazing. She remembered what hope was, and this was it. That inner churning that moves you forward, plows you through life the way the boats below plowed the shiny water, the way the plane was plowing forward to a place new, and where she was needed. She had been asked to be part of her son’s life.

Final Thoughts:

This is one of those books that makes me wish I were in a book club! Olive Kitteridge is a complex and unforgettable (and, at times, highly unlikeable) character, and yet I fell in love with her and this lovely book. As soon as I can watch the mini-series, I plan to re-read the book.

January 20, 2015

Stephen King's 11/22/63


11/22/63 by Stephen King
Fiction
2011 Scribner
e-book
Finished on November 20, 2014
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)





Publisher’s Blurb:

On November 22, 1963, three shots rang out in Dallas, President Kennedy died, and the world changed. What if you could change it back? In this brilliantly conceived tour de force, Stephen King—who has absorbed the social, political, and popular culture of his generation more imaginatively and thoroughly than any other writer—takes readers on an incredible journey into the past and the possibility of altering it.

It begins with Jake Epping, a thirty-five-year-old English teacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine, who makes extra money teaching GED classes. He asks his students to write about an event that changed their lives, and one essay blows him away—a gruesome, harrowing story about the night more than fifty years ago when Harry Dunning’s father came home and killed his mother, his sister, and his brother with a sledgehammer. Reading the essay is a watershed moment for Jake, his life—like Harry’s, like America’s in 1963—turning on a dime. Not much later his friend Al, who owns the local diner, divulges a secret: his storeroom is a portal to the past, a particular day in 1958. And Al enlists Jake to take over the mission that has become his obsession—to prevent the Kennedy assassination.

So begins Jake’s new life as George Amberson, in a different world of Ike and JFK and Elvis, of big American cars and sock hops and cigarette smoke everywhere. From the dank little city of Derry, Maine (where there’s Dunning business to conduct), to the warmhearted small town of Jodie, Texas, where Jake falls dangerously in love, every turn is leading eventually, of course, to a troubled loner named Lee Harvey Oswald and to Dallas, where the past becomes heart-stoppingly suspenseful, and where history might not be history anymore. Time-travel has never been so believable. Or so terrifying.


I haven’t jumped on the ereader bandwagon like so many of my friends and relatives have in the past few years. It’s not that I’m against ebooks. I just don’t buy that many books, in any format, since I already own so many unread books on my shelves, not to mention all the ARCs I get from work (and have previously accepted from publishers). However, 11/22/63 is a huge novel, weighing in at 849 pages. If I needed a good reason to finally buy an ebook, this was it! I do most of my reading in bed and the thought of holding that heavy book was very unappealing. After a little mishap of accidentally downloading the Spanish edition of the ebook (for which I kindly received a credit), I started reading this highly acclaimed novel while flying home from Oregon in December 2013. I know I read it for a week or two, but somewhere along the line, I got distracted by other shiny new books, and wound up setting this one aside for several months. I’m not sure when I finally picked it up again, but once I did, I couldn’t put it down. I love a good time-travel story and this hit all the marks.

Final Thoughts:

Part time-travel, part speculative fiction, 11/22/63 is not your typical Stephen King horror novel. I was able to read late into the night without ever feeling spooked, and while the characters and plot may have invaded my dreams, I was never afraid to turn out the lights and go to sleep (unlike my experience with It and The Shining!). Yes, the book is quite long and meanders a bit, but King is an excellent storyteller and the dialogue and suspense kept the pages turning. Fans of Ken Grimwood’s Replay and Jack Finney’s Time and Again will find 11/22/63 to be a very satisfying read.

January 17, 2015

Slow-Cooker White Bean Chicken Chili Verde


Last weekend I shared a recipe (Slow-Cooker Santa Fe Chicken) from my newly acquired copy of The Skinnytaste Cookbook. This week I bring you another slow-cooker recipe from the same cookbook. It was was even better than last week's soup! I think I'm on a roll here! I love Gina Homolka's gorgeous cookbook, which is full of beautiful photographs of most of her recipes. The ingredients are items I would normally stock in my pantry, and the directions are uncomplicated and, so far, quick & easy. This is my kind of cookbook!



So here's the soup/chili. Doesn't it look delicious?! My house smelled so good when I came home from work. Even better, there wasn't much left to do other than grate a little bit of cheese, slice an avocado and crack open a Shiner. I made a simple cheese quesadilla to serve on the side, but a green salad would be good (and healthier), too.



Slow-Cooker White Bean Chicken Chili Verde
from The Skinnytaste Cookbook


1 tsp. olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
1 cup chopped cubanelle pepper
3 medium tomatillos, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 3/4 tsp. ground cumin
2 (15.5-oz.) cans Great Northern or navy beans, rinsed and drained
1 (7-oz.) can fire-roasted chopped green chiles
1/4 cup chopped jalapeno pepper, fresh or pickled (remove seeds if you prefer mild heat)
2 1/2 cups Swanson 33% less sodium chicken broth
1 1/2 lbs. boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 tsp. dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon chili powder
2 bay leaves
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
1/4 cup finely chopped scallions or red onion, for garnish

Heat a medium nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the oil, then the onions and cubanelle pepper. Cook, stirring, until golden and soft, about 5 minutes. Add the tomatillos, garlic, and 2 1/2 teaspoons of the cumin and cook for 2 more minutes. Transfer the mixture to the slow-cooker and add the beans, green chiles, jalapeno, chicken broth, chicken breasts, cilantro, oregano, chili powder and bay leaves.

Cover and cook on low for 8 hours or high for 4 hours. Remove chicken from the broth, shred with 2 forks, and return to the slow-cooker.

Season with the salt and the remaining 1/4 teaspoon cumin, or to taste, and discard the bay leaves. To serve, ladle the chili into soup bowls and top with the scallions.

Yield: 6 servings

My Notes:



I cheated. I had a 16 oz. jar of La Victoria Thick 'n Chunky Medium Salsa Verde in my pantry and after reviewing list of ingredients on the label, I knew it would be an easy substitution for the onion, cubanelle pepper, tomatillos, garlic, fire-roasted green chiles and jalapeno. It was definitely a time-saver to skip all that chopping and the soup turned out with just enough heat that I knew I hadn't compromised the recipe for our taste buds.

I skipped the additional cumin and kosher salt in the last step and didn't notice the lack of seasoning. 

As pictured, I topped my soup with sliced avocado, a few sprigs of cilantro, grated Colby-Jack cheese and a few tortilla chips. Light sour cream would also be a good addition.

According to the author, this freezes well. We wouldn't know. We had it for dinner and again for lunch the next day. There's very little left to freeze.

Please visit Beth Fish Reads for Weekend Cooking.
Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend.

January 12, 2015

The Tortilla Curtain


The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle
Fiction
1995 Penguin
2006 Blackstone Audio
Reader: T. Coraghessan Boyle
Finished on November 13, 2014
Rating: 3.5/5 (Good)



Publisher’s Blurb:

Topanga Canyon is home to two couples on a collision course. Los Angeles liberals Delaney and Kyra Mossbacher lead an ordered sushi-and-recycling existence in a newly gated hilltop community: he a sensitive nature writer, she an obsessive realtor. Mexican illegals Candido and America Rincon desperately cling to their vision of the American Dream as they fight off starvation in a makeshift camp deep in the ravine. And from the moment a freak accident brings Candido and Delaney into intimate contact, these four and their opposing worlds gradually intersect in what becomes a tragicomedy of error and misunderstanding.

T.C. Boyle is one of those authors I’ve always intended to read, but other authors always seem to win me over. When I saw that The Tortilla Curtain was available on audio, I decided to give it a try. One of my good friends mentioned that she feels it’s his best work yet, so I was especially eager to give it a listen. I enjoyed the production, which is read by the author, but I wasn’t as impressed with the novel as I thought I would be. It may be that I wasn’t giving the book my full attention, as I listened while working during one of the busiest months of the year. But I also think that this is one of those books that is better experienced by reading rather than listening. AudioFile shares my opinion:
From the day of Delaney Mossbacher's accident on the canyon road, his life and that of Candido Rincon continue to collide. Though cultures apart, Candido's homelessness and Delaney's yuppie paranoia make their interactions tragic and inevitable. Boyle presents interesting characters to the listener but seems to want to rush us through the story. The frenetic pace reflects Delaney's world better than Candido's. As their opposing voices are heard, Boyle's writing reflects an understanding of both sides, but his oral characterizations fall short. His narrative voice is eager and doesn't project his own satire as well as it might. R.F.W. (c)AudioFile, Portland, Maine.

Final Thoughts:

20 years later, T.C. Boyle’s social commentary about the immigrant experience remains just as important (and timely) as it did when it was first published in 1995. This would be a great book club selection, as there is so much to discuss about race relations, discrimination and illegal aliens. Skip the audio and read the book.

January 11, 2015

Slow-Cooker Santa Fe Chicken




I got a fancy new crock pot for Christmas this year! Up until now, I've only used my crock pot for a couple of recipes -- pot roast and ribs. I've always felt that I can make soups and stew just as easily on the stove top, so why bother with a slow-cooker? Well, I treated myself to a new cookbook for Christmas and it has several slow-cooker recipes that sound delicious, so last week I decided to give one a try. Oh.My.Goodness. The house smelled so good when I came inside, shivering from the cold wind that seems never to cease blowing this winter! 


I measured and prepped all the ingredients the night before, which is a good thing since I'm not too alert at 5:30 AM. All I had to do in the morning was put everything in the crock pot and set the timer. Voila! The chicken turned out super moist and tender, and the flavors of the soup broth were just perfect.

Since I leave for work by 6:45, the warming function on this crock pot is going to be very handy. My previous cooker only had two functions -- low and high. This one has low, high, simmer, warm, steam and brown. It's definitely going to get more use than that old dinosaur! And, this recipe is going to be one of my go-to meals year-round.



Slow-Cooker Santa Fe Chicken
from The Skinnytaste Cookbook

STEW

1 (14.4-oz.) can Swanson 99% fat-free chicken broth
1 (15-oz.) can low-sodium black beans, rinsed and drained
2 cups (8 oz.) frozen corn kernels
1 (14.5 oz. can) diced tomatoes with mild green chiles
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
3 scallions, chopped
1 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. onion powder
1 1/4 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
1 1/2 lbs. boneless, skinless chicken breasts

TOPPINGS

1/2 cup chopped scallions
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

For the stew:

In a slow-cooker, combine the broth, beans, corn, tomatoes, cilantro, scallions, garlic powder, onion powder, cumin, and cayenne. Season the chicken with salt and lay it on top. Cover and cook on low for 10 hours or on high for 6 hours.

Thirty minutes before serving, remove the chicken, shred it with two forks, and return it to the slow cooker.

Serve in soup bowls and top with scallions and cilantro.

My Notes:

I only used 1 cup of corn, 1/4 tsp. of cayenne pepper and substituted petite diced tomatoes for the diced tomatoes with mild green chiles.

This is also very good ladled over rice. I want to try it in burritos and as nacho topping, as well.

Additional toppings: 

Sour cream, diced avocado, shredded cheddar cheese and tortilla chips.

Yield: 8 servings

Please visit Beth Fish Reads for Weekend Cooking.
Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend.

January 8, 2015

The Last Letter from Your Lover



The Last Letter from Your Lover by Jojo Moyes
Fiction
2010 Pamela Dorman Books/Viking
Finished on November 12, 2014
Rating: 3.5/5 (Good)




Publisher’s Blurb:

It is 1960. When Jennifer Stirling wakes up in the hospital, she can remember nothing—not the tragic car accident that put her there, not her wealthy husband, not even her own name. Searching for clues about her life, she finds an impassioned letter, signed simply “B.,” from a man who is not her husband—a man for whom she seemed willing to risk everything.

In 2003, young journalist Ellie Haworth is searching the dusty archives of her newspaper for a story that will resurrect her faltering career. She finds another handwritten letter, this one with an ardent plea: “I’ll be at Platform 4 Paddington at 7:15 on Monday evening, and there is nothing in the world that would make me happier than if you found the courage to come with me.”

Ellie becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to the lovers. Perhaps if they lived happily ever after, her own complicated involvement with a married man will have a happy ending, too. Ellie’s search will rewrite history and help her see the truth at last about her own very modern love story.

Sophisticated and stylish, The Last Letter from Your Lover is a spellbinding, page-turning double love story. Remarkably moving, grand in scale, and heartbreakingly human, it is an unforgettable Brief Encounter for our times, with an ending as unexpected as love at first sight.

It’s been almost two months since I finished this novel, and until I sat down to type up the publisher’s blurb, I recalled very little about the characters or the plot. Even now, I have only a vague sense about the specific details of the story. I know some readers have commented on their enjoyment of the time period, but honestly, I never had a clear sense of when the novel was taking place. Sometimes I thought it read more like it was set in the 30s or 40s, not the 60s. It took me a while to get interested in the story, and once I finally got hooked, the time shifted ahead by 40 years. Yes, it’s yet another story centered around amnesia (quite the popular theme these days), but surprisingly, the alternating stories between Jennifer and Ellie (also an overused device) didn’t annoy me, as I thought they might.

Final Thoughts:

In spite of some minor quibbles, I wound up enjoying this novel, not wanting it to end as the last page drew near. It’s not nearly as good as Me Before You, but it’s definitely better than The Girl You Left Behind. I’m still not sure if I’m a fan of Moyes’ earlier works, but I will continue to read more by this author, ever hopeful for another story as remarkable as Me Before You.

January 7, 2015

January 4, 2015

The Dog Stars



The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
Fiction – Post-Apocalyptic
2012 Vintage Books
Finished on October 15, 2014
Rating: 4.75/5 (Terrific!)




Publisher’s Blurb:

Hig somehow survived the flu pandemic that killed everyone he knows. Now his wife is gone, his friends are dead, and he lives in the hanger of a small abandoned airport with his dog, Jasper. But when a random transmission beams through the radio of his 1956 Cessna, the voice ignites a hope deep inside him that a better life exists outside their tightly controlled perimeter. Risking everything, he flies past his point of no return and follows its static-broken trail, only to find something that is both better and worse than anything he could ever hope for.

I have a friend in Texas who never fails to recommend some of the best books I’ve ever read. A Prayer for Owen Meany (John Irving), Plainsong (the late Kent Haruf), Ready Player One (Ernest Cline), and just over two years ago, The Dog Stars by Peter Heller. Had I not read Lee’s glowing review for Heller’s debut novel, I probably would have let it slip under my radar and ultimately miss out on a great read. Lee gave the book a perfect 5/5 and said:
A poetic post-apocalyptic story? This is it! This debut novel by Peter Heller is set in the Rocky Mountains after a super-flu epidemic has killed off almost everyone. This is an amazing mixture of poetic reflection, beautiful writing about nature & some amazing intense action. The hero, Hig, is an amateur pilot, who maintains the perimeter by flying patrol in his aging Cessna with his faithful dog, Jasper. His partner in survival is Bangley, a former neighbor who is a survivalist and weapons expert.

After a hunting trip that goes bad, Hig, takes off on a mission to find a mysterious voice he heard on the radio years before. The book really takes off here and Hig's life changes profoundly. At times, "The Dog Stars" is every bit as depressing as McCarthy's "The Road", but there is a sense of hopefulness that makes this a joy to read. This is a book that makes me want to go fishing and to learn how to fly a plane. It is also a book that I wanted to go on long after I finished reading.

Well, I didn’t yearn to go fishing or learn how to fly a plane after reading the novel, but it did make me want to immediately start over and read it a second time. I read Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize Winner, The Road, in 2007 and gave it a 4/5 rating. It’s one of the grimmest books I’ve ever read and, truthfully, I didn’t care for it the entire time I was reading. But, you know, once I finished, it stuck with me and eventually grew on me. I’ve gone on to read other post-apocalyptic novels (The Passage and The Twelve by Justin Cronin; The Fifth Wave by Rick Yancey; The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier; I Am Legend by Richard Matheson; Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank), but The Dog Stars is by far my favorite. The telegraphic delivery of dialogue (and the lack of quotation marks) took some time to get used to, but the more I became engrossed in Hig’s story, the less I focused on the structure of the narrative. And of course, with the recent outbreak of Ebola, this was quite the timely read!

On Simple Beauty (and Hopefulness): 
I could almost imagine that it was before, that Jasper and I were off somewhere on an extended sojourn and would come back one day soon, that all would come back to me, that we were not living in the wake of disaster. Had not lost everything but our lives. Same as yesterday standing in the garden. It caught me sometimes: that this was okay. Just this. That simple beautify was still bearable barely, and that if I lived moment to moment, garden to stove to the simple act of flying, I could have peace.
Final Thoughts:

Peter Heller has written a beautiful tale about the end of the world as we know it. The taut pacing, believable (and at times, heart-racing) plot and a very satisfying conclusion make for an excellent read. This is one to own, one to share and one to read again and again.

“For all those who thought Cormac McCarthy’s The Road the last word on the post-apocalyptic world—think again.... Make time and space for this savage, tender, brilliant book.” ~Glen Duncan, author of The Last Werewolf

“Heart-wrenching and richly written…. The Dog Stars is a love story, but not just in the typical sense. It’s an ode to friendship between two men, a story of the strong bond between a human and a dog, and a reminder of what is worth living for.” ~Minneapolis Star-Tribune

December 23, 2014

Merry Christmas!


It's been quite hectic around here, what with several birthday celebrations and some very long (but fun!) days at work. Sunday was my first day off in two weeks and now we're in for the final day before all the returns & exchanges begin (which I get to avoid this year!). The past couple of days have been a little rough and I'm hopeful that our customers will be on their best behavior tomorrow... patience are beginning to run a bit thin. Thankfully, I get a nice break starting on Christmas Day, as we head to Oregon for some well-deserved R&R. I have nothing on the agenda other than to sleep later than 5 a.m. and read for more than 10 minutes before bed. Can.Not.Wait!

With all the hustle and bustle, though, this poor blog has been sorely neglected. I've fallen behind with my reviews and pretty much failed on the Instagram holiday postings. Oh, well. My shopping is done and my gifts are wrapped and shipped. This photo will have to suffice for a Christmas greeting, though, since we never got around to ordering cards this year. Not the best, but at least we're all smiling. ;)



I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a peaceful 2015.

December 7, 2014

Penguin UK Books - Book-a-Day Challenge




December is always a crazy busy month for me. Yes, I know. It is for everyone, but I work in retail (B&N) and from about mid-November until after New Year's, I'm worn out. Gone are the days of baking dozens of cookies from scratch or decorating the house from top-to-bottom, not to mention writing the traditional Christmas letter and having my cards in the mail before my birthday. By the end of the day, all I want to do is kick my shoes off, pour myself a glass of wine and either curl up with my current book or veg in front of the tv. The weekends are full of chores and errands (and now shopping and wrapping!!), so there's little time to relax and enjoy the season.  I can't imagine how exhausted my co-workers with little babies or small children are feeling this month! Ho ho ho.

In an effort to keep this blog alive through the rest of the month, I thought I'd share my Instagram photos, since I'm obviously not going to get any book reviews posted, as I had hoped I could.

I don't remember where I first learned about the Penguin UK Book-a-Day Challenge, but I'm in and it's been fun (and easy!) to pick a book to feature for each day's theme. Enjoy! {Be sure to watch the Secret Santa video on Penguin's website. Very entertaining!}

Week One:


1. Iconic First Line

2. Last Read

3. On My Christmas List

4. For Chilly Nights

5. Quintessentially British

6. Everyone Should Read

7. Childhood Favourite

November 23, 2014

The Goldfinch


The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
Fiction
2013 Hachette Audio
Reader: David Pittu
Finished on October 9, 2014
Rating:3.5/5 (Good)




Publisher’s Blurb:

Composed with the skills of a master, The Goldfinch is a haunted odyssey through present-day America and a drama of enthralling force and acuity.

It begins with a boy. Theo Decker, a thirteen-year-old New Yorker, miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother. Abandoned by his father, Theo is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Bewildered by his strange new home on Park Avenue, disturbed by schoolmates who don’t know how to talk to him, and tormented above all by his longing for his mother, he clings to the one thing that reminds him of her: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the criminal underworld.

As an adult, Theo moves silkily between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty labyrinth of an antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love—and his talisman, the painting, places him at the center of a narrowing, even more dangerous circle.

The Goldfinch is a novel of striking narrative energy and power. It combines unforgettably vivid characters, mesmerizing language, and breathtaking suspense, while plumbing with a philosopher’s calm the deepest mysteries of love, identity, and art. It is a beautiful, stay-up-all-night-and-tell-all-your-friends triumph, an old-fashioned story of loss and obsession, survival and self-invention, and the ruthless machinations of fate.

I’m not even going to try to discuss the literary merit (or lack thereof) of this novel, as there are numerous articles available on the Internet that debate both sides of this argument. I, however, am not a critic, nor am I a literary scholar. When I select book to read, I either trust an author’s past history with books I’ve previously read or I rely on word-of-mouth, whether from fellow bloggers, co-workers, friends or relatives. I look forward to each new book, hopeful that I will be both entertained and enlightened.

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, The Goldfinch is THE most talked about novel of 2014. Weighing in at 771 pages, it was not up for debate as to whether I would read the print version or listen to the audio. I do most of my reading in bed, so the weight alone was enough to convince me to listen rather than read. This format is always a nice way to pass the time at work before the store opens, but, honestly, Theo’s internal monologue went on and on and on! The beginning of the novel is very compelling and I couldn’t wait to find an opportunity to listen to another chapter, but unfortunately the pacing is uneven and the book began to feel like a slog (albeit a nonetheless compelling train wreck of a slog) by the midpoint. Tartt is quite a storyteller, though, and I remained curious, anxious to see how it would all play out in the end for Theo. Plus, David Pittu is an excellent reader (with a great Russian accent), so I stuck with it and finished the novel in just under six weeks. It’s a good thing I didn’t choose to read the ebook edition, as I am pretty sure I wouldn’t have had the patience to see it to the very end. With that said, the story and characters are embedded in my memory, as is the case with most of the audiobooks I’ve experienced. Will they remain? That is yet to be seen.

Final Thoughts:

Masterful? Perhaps to some. Immense? Without a doubt. Worthwhile? Debatable. Lyrical? No. (If you’re looking for a lyrical work of literature, once again I highly recommend All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.) Regrettable? I’m not sorry I read The Goldfinch (as a bookseller, it’s always good to be knowledgeable about the bestsellers, particularly during the holiday madness season), but I doubt it’s one about which I’ll gush to a tentative customer.

How about you? Have you read this chunkster? Do I dare try The Secret History, which has been languishing on my shelves for years?

November 19, 2014

November 17, 2014

Delicious!



Delicious! by Ruth Reichl
Fiction
2014
Finished on September 23, 2014
Rating: 3.5/5 (Good)




Publisher’s Blurb:

Ruth Reichl is a born storyteller. Through her restaurant reviews, where she celebrated the pleasures of a well-made meal, and her best-selling memoirs that address our universal feelings of love and loss, Reichl has achieved a special place in the hearts of hundreds of thousands of readers. Now, with this magical debut novel, she has created a sumptuous, wholly realized world that will enchant you.

Billie Breslin has traveled far from her home in California to take a job at Delicious!, New York’s most iconic food magazine. Away from her family, particularly her older sister, Genie, Billie initially feels like a fish out of water—until she is welcomed by the magazine’s colorful staff. She is also seduced by the vibrant downtown food scene, especially by Fontanari’s, the famous Italian food shop where she works on weekends. Then Delicious! is abruptly shut down, but Billie agrees to stay on in the empty office, maintaining the hotline for reader complaints in order to pay her bills.

To Billie’s surprise, the lonely job becomes the portal to a miraculous discovery. In a hidden room in the magazine’s library, Billie finds a cache of letters written during World War II by Lulu Swan, a plucky twelve-year-old, to the legendary chef James Beard. Lulu’s letters provide Billie with a richer understanding of history, and a feeling of deep connection to the young writer whose courage in the face of hardship inspires Billie to come to terms with her fears, her big sister, and her ability to open her heart to love.

It’s been many, many years since I first read Ruth Reichl’s witty memoir, Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table. As I recall, I enjoyed the first half of that book much more than the second half, laughing aloud at some of her childhood memories, as well as her anecdotes about her mother, “the notorious food-poisoner known forevermore as the Queen of Mold.” When Delicious! first appeared on the shelves at Barnes & Noble, I knew I had to give it a try, especially after reading so many glowing reviews by fellow bloggers. I quickly fell into Billie’s new life in New York, enjoying all the foodie details and atmosphere of both the city and the publisher’s offices, when the narrative shifted abruptly. As is my custom, I hadn’t read the publisher’s blurb prior to reading the novel, so I wasn’t prepared for the sudden demise of the fictitious magazine, Delicious! While I enjoyed the letters between Lulu Swan and James Beard, I preferred the foodie aspect of the novel more than the contrived World War II storyline.

Final Thoughts:

Part culinary fiction, part historical fiction (with a predictable mystery thrown in for good measure), this ambitious debut novel was a bit too bland for this reader. Good but definitely not delicious!

November 12, 2014

Bird's-Eye View (IV)








America's Finest City
San Diego, CA
October 2014

Click on photo for full-size viewing.

November 10, 2014

Paris Letters



Paris Letters by Janice MacLeod
Memoir
2014 Sourcebooks
Finished on September 2, 2014
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)





Publisher’s Blurb:

Finding love and freedom in a pen, a paintbrush… and Paris

How much money does it take to quit your job?

Exhausted and on the verge of burnout, Janice poses this question to herself as she doodles on a notepad at her desk. Surprisingly, the answer isn’t as daunting as she expected. With a little math and a lot of determination, Janice cuts back, saves up, and buys herself two years of freedom in Europe.

A few days into her stop in Paris, Janice meets Christophe, the cute butcher down the street—who doesn’t speak English. Through a combination of sign language and franglais, they embark on a whirlwind Paris romance. She soon realizes that she can never return to the world of twelve-hour workdays and greasy corporate lingo. But her dwindling savings force her to find a way to fund her dreams again. So Janice turns to her three loves—words, art, and Christophe—to figure out a way to make her happily-ever-after in Paris last forever.

Another selection for the 2014 Paris in July reading challenge, this one turned out to be a winner! I managed to read the entire book in just one week, which these days is a huge accomplishment for me. Littered with two dozen Post-It Notes, this book is one I plan to hang on to for future reference, right next to Eloisa James’ Paris in Love. I don’t know when, but I’m definitely planning to visit Paris… someday!





Inspiration to De-Clutter:
By night, I moved on from my closets to delve into my cupboards. I tossed dried-up nail polishes and hairbrushes. I only used one hairbrush. Why did I have six? I used up the rest of my teeth whitening gel. I gave up on and tossed the recipes I’d clipped for dishes I never made. I tossed the free CD of weird music I never listen to from that yoga class I stopped going to. The old yoga mat, the deflated yoga ball, the broken yoga straps, the expired yoga membership…tossed. Half-filled journals of half-baked ideas, the stack of phone books from the last five years [who uses phones books anymore?!], broken flowerpots that I kept with thoughts of making something crafty from them, the broken frames I meant to fix…tossed. Makeup samples, swag from film industry party gift bags, sunglasses with scratches [eh-hem], a home phone even though I didn’t have a land line anymore, chargers for cell phones I didn’t have anymore, computer boxes for computers I didn’t have either, instruction manuals for electronics that I didn’t even remember having, the wrong-sized vacuum bags I never returned, checkbooks for accounts I no longer had…tossed. And loyalty cards that promised savings on everything I bought. Tossed. I’d save more by not buying.

This brought a smile to my face:

By June, the sixth month into my journaling year, I had crossed plenty off my list of unfinished business and let go of many items, such as most of my books and one of my guitars. I was ruthless. I knew, without knowing where I was going, that I wouldn’t need this stuff when I got there.

But one item stopped me in my tracks.

My Kris Kristofferson album.

I haven’t owned a record player since my single-digit years, but I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of this album. This record was pilfered from my parents’ collection. When I was a kid, I would gawk at this album cover and stare into his steely blue eyes. Kris Kristofferson was a real artist. A great lyricist and a pretty good actor. When I looked at Kris, I thought, “This guy is so good at everything he does. And what he does is so cool. I want to do something cool.” I kept the album.

On the magic of bookstores:

My haste to get outside is based on an exciting call I received after lunch. The book I ordered has arrived at the local English bookstore. There is something poetic about a good old-fashioned bookstore. I used to have Amazon deliver books to my door. I’ve always had a love for mail. And these days, I’ll be the first to brag about the convenience and pleasure of e-books. The instant access to English books in a French-speaking land is a magical delight. But there is magic in traditional bookstores too. It’s a magic you can feel in the air. The smell of aging paper, of ink, and of people. And in Paris, some of those people were Hemingway and Fitzgerald.

Final Thoughts:

This delightful memoir, with its black-and-white drawings and countless travel suggestions, is the perfect armchair guide to "La Ville-Lumière.” Not only do I plan to peruse it again at a later date, I’ve also just discovered the author’s blog, which I know will keep me entertained for many, many months. Paris Letters is all that Eat Pray Love hoped to be, but without the prayer and the navel-gazing.