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January 30, 2007

Smart Women...




Smart Women by Judy Blume
Contemporary Fiction
Rating: DNF






Stupid book. Wasted an evening reading a hundred pages before tossing it across the room. I read Summer Sisters several years ago, but don't remember much about it (and it must not have been that good since I don't own a copy).

Behind the Scenes at the Museum



Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson
Contemporary Fiction
1995 Whitbread Book of the Year
Rating: DNF




After 50 pages, I tossed this one aside. Didn't care for the narrator or annoying characters.

From the Stacks Challenge - Finished!


Ta-da! I managed to complete this challenge with days to spare. Not too bad considering I didn't start until December. Click on the titles to read my reviews.

The Other Side of the Bridge by Mary Lawson (B+)
The Swallows of Kabul by Yasmina Khadra (C)
The Baker's Apprentice by Judith Hendricks (B-)
Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading by Maureen Corrigan (C-)
A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L'Engle (C-)

Unfortunately, all but one of these books is worth keeping. I'm not sorry I read the others; just sorry they weren't as good as I'd hoped.

The Baker's Apprentice


The Baker's Apprentice by Judith Ryan Hendricks
Contemporary Fiction
Finished on 1/22/07

Rating: 2.5/5 (Average)
From the Stacks Winter Reading Challenge #5
2007 TBR Challenge #1



You would think by now I would know better than to get my hopes set too high for the sequel to a book, regardless of who the author is. But no, I still set myself up for disappointment time after time. It's always a bit more exciting to begin reading the sequel to a well-loved novel than simply picking up a new release or highly acclaimed book. With a sequel, you already have a connection to the characters and setting, as well as an admiration for the author's ability to entertain. But unfortunately a book is just a book and there's no guarantee that the follow-up will be as entertaining (or even as well-written) as its predecessor. For example, I loved Dean Koontz's Odd Thomas, but was terribly disappointed with Forever Odd. Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow is an incredible story and, like Odd Thomas, made my Top Ten for the year I read it. However, Russell's sequel (Children of God) failed to hold my interest and I struggled to finish, hoping it would get better the further along I read. Julie and Romeo Get Lucky is another sequel that left me longing for the humor and warmth I enjoyed in Julie and Romeo. Instead it only annoyed me with its silly and repetitious storyline. Bill Richardson's Bachelor Brothers' Bed & Breakfast is a delightfully hilarious book, but the sequel (Bachelor Brothers' Bed & Breakfast Pillow Book) fell short and wound up in the discard pile.

On the other hand, I loved The Exact Same Moon: Fifty Acres and a Family just as much (if not more) than its predecessor, Fifty Acres and a Poodle. And, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street was just as lovely as 84, Charing Cross Road.

So, after reading Judith Hendricks' Bread Alone for the second time, I was excited to finally read The Baker's Apprentice. I had thoroughly enjoyed Bread Alone and was eager to see what the future held for Wynter, both as a bread baker at the Queen Street Bakery in Seattle and in her personal life with her new love interest. Unfortunately, this was a less-than-lackluster follow-up to Ms. Hendricks' debut novel. Bread Alone is a warm, cozy read full of wonderful descriptions about baking and life in the Pacific Northwest. Unfortunately, the sequel is less about the goings-on in the bakery and more about the ups and downs of Wynter's love life (which quickly becomes plodding and predictable). I didn't care for the abrupt ending and wonder if the author wrote it in hopes of continuing further with these characters and storyline. Of her three novels, Isabel's Daughter (a stand-alone) is by far my favorite.

There are no guarantees when it comes to the enjoyment of a book, whether it's a stand-alone or a sequel (or a series, but that's a whole 'nother kettle of fish!). So much depends one's mood, the timing of the read, or whether it's been over-hyped. I'll just continue to hope for the best and ignore that irritating little voice that so rudely reminds me that I'm bound to be disappointed.

January 25, 2007

Coming Attractions




THURSDAY THIRTEEN


Wow! There are so many new books coming out this year. My TBR list just keeps growing! Check 'em out:


1. Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott (available March 20th)

2. A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini (available May 22nd)

3. On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan (available June 5th)

4. The Woods by Harlan Coben (available April 17th)

5. High Profile by Robert Parker (a Jesse Stone/Sunny Randall book; available February 6th)

6. Luncheon of the Boating Party by Susan Vreeland (available May 3rd)

7. Burning Bright by Tracy Chevalier (available March 20th)

8. Body Surfing by Anita Shreeve (available April 24th)

9. Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult (available March 6th)

10. Dream When You're Feeling Blue by Elizabeth Berg (available May 1st)

11. The Double Blind by Chris Bohjalian (available February 13th)

12. Invisible Prey by John Sandford (available May 15th)

13. The Face of Death by Cody Mcfadyen (available May 29th)

Extras:

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver (available May 1st)

Winter Rose by Jennifer Donnelly (available Spring 2007)

The Rest of Her Life by Laura Moriarty (available August 7th)

January 24, 2007

The Handmaid and the Carpenter



The Handmaid and the Carpenter by
Elizabeth Berg

Contemporary Fiction
Rating: DNF





From Publishers Weekly:

Berg's sweetly understated dramatization of the Nativity story casts Mary and Joseph as provincial teenagers who try to honor family tradition in spite of challenging circumstances. Alternating between the voices of the holy couple, Berg relates a romance that blossoms at the wedding of relatives between the 16-year-old carpenter from Nazareth and the comely 13-year-old girl originally from Sepphoris. Mary, dreamy and intractable, already entertains notions of miraculous circumstances surrounding her own birth to her barren mother, Anne. Joseph is instantly smitten and engenders the trust of both families for a betrothal, yet Mary holds back, cherishing a sense of greater destiny. Escaping a near rape by a Greek man by the river, Mary then receives the angel's message that she will bear an extraordinary son, despite never having known a man; the sadly unwed Mary must return to Joseph, who repudiates her until he, too, is visited in a dream by an angel directing him on the honorable course. With Herod's decree that everyone return to their hometowns to register for the census, Joseph and the near-term Mary set off on their arduous and momentous journey to Bethlehem. Berg handles the gospel passages with a tender reverence.

Inconceivable! How is it possible that I not only didn't care for this book, but that I didn't even finish it?! Just shy of the halfway point, I called it quits. It just wasn't doing a thing for me. How terribly disappointing, especially since it was one of my favorite birthday presents this year. Rats! This is the second book by Berg (one of my all-time favorite authors) that has failed to impress me; We Are All Welcome Here was last year’s disappointment. I have read every single novel by this author; in fact, the only thing of hers that I haven't read is a nonfiction work (Escaping Into the Open: The Art of Writing True).

On May 1st, Ms. Berg’s upcoming novel is set to lay down in bookstores across the country. I own every book by this author and rarely wait for the paperback edition. Other than what I can glean from the cover art (a couple in World War II military attire), I know absolutely nothing about Dream When You're Feeling Blue. I don’t want to get my hopes up, but this is one of my favorite periods to read about. Maybe I’ll just have to pay Barnes & Noble a visit and give the first few chapters a read before I decide whether or not I want to spend my money on this one.

January 22, 2007

Bread Alone



Bread Alone by Judith Ryan Hendricks
Contemporary Fiction
Finished on 1/16/07
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)





The smell of good bread baking,
like the sound of lightly flowing water,
is indescribable in its evocation of innocence and delight.

M. F. K. Fisher (1908-1992)

Book Description

The life of 31-year-old trophy wife Wynter Morrison suddenly changes course when her husband announces one evening that their marriage is over. Emotionally devastated and desperate for a change of scenery, Wyn moves to Seattle where she spends aimless hours at a local bakery, sipping coffee and inhaling the sweet aromas of freshly-made bread. These visits bring back memories of her long-ago apprenticeship at a French boulangerie, and when offered a position at the bakery, Wyn quickly accepts -- hoping that the rituals of baking will help her move on.

Working long hours among the bakery's cluster of eclectic women -- Linda, the irascible bread baker; earth mother Ellen and her partner Diane; and Tyler, the blue-haired barista -- Wyn awakens to the truths that she missed while living the good life in Hancock Park.

Soon Wyn discovers that making bread possesses an unexpected and wondrous healing power, helping her to rediscover that nothing stays the same... bread rises, pain fades, the heart heals, and the future beckons.

It’s been over five years since I first read Bread Alone. I enjoyed it quite well (gave it a B+ 7/10 Good rating) and looked forward to reading the sequel (The Baker's Apprentice) when it was published. Of course, that book sat on a shelf for a few years, but I finally decided to add it to my stack for this month's reading selection. As soon as I finished The Way the Crow Flies, I was ready for something light and fluffy. I picked up my copy of The Baker’s Apprentice, settled in with a cup of tea and a warm kitty on my lap. But before I even finished the first paragraph, I set it back down and grabbed my copy of Bread Alone. What a perfect excuse for a re-read. While I remembered the basic premise of the novel, most of the details were long forgotten, which was kind of nice. Felt like I was reading it for the first time. I didn’t want to start in on the sequel with a lot of mental gaps.

Bread Alone is an entertaining “beach read” in spite of the fairly predictable plot. I enjoyed the details about working in a bakery, as well as the romantic subplot. It’s always entertaining to read a book in which the setting is one in which I’m familiar. In addition to having lived in southern California for twenty years, I have also spent a bit of time in the Seattle area, so it was fun to read all the references to both locales. It’s been ages since I’ve tasted a cheeseburger from In-n-Out Burger, admired the beautiful hillsides covered in fuscia bougainvillea, strolled through Pike Place Market, or cruised the San Juan Islands, but I haven’t forgotten how much I enjoyed them. Reading about them is the next best thing. The author even mentions the beach town I grew up in (Del Mar, California). Don’t see that too often in novels.

As much as I love to cook and bake, I have never made a loaf of bread. Well, unless you count all the loaves I’ve made with my bread machine. But I’m pretty sure that doesn’t compare to mixing all the ingredients and kneading the dough by hand. Hendricks includes several recipes and my book is littered with Post-It Note flags. Ever the optimist, I hope to try my hand at at least one or two.

Re-reading a book is always a risk, but this proved to be worth the effort, especially since I wound up enjoying it even more than I did the first time around. The dialogue rings true and flows with ease. Certainly not great literature, but a feel-good beach read that’s sure to tempt anyone to try their hand at baking bread. Or move to the Pacific Northwest! I wouldn’t mind doing both.

I am going to learn to make bread to-morrow. So you may imagine me with my sleeves rolled up, mixing flour, milk, saleratus, etc., with a deal of grace. I advise you if you don't know how to make the staff of life to learn with dispatch.
Emily Dickinson, American poet (1830-1886)

More Snow!


OK. It can stop now. I'm tired of the snow and the cold temps. I'm ready for spring and short sleeve shirts. The static electricity is annoying (one of the negatives of heated seats in my car) and I miss being able to grill outside. We've had three snowfalls in one month, all of which have dumped at least 4-8 inches. This past storm brought 6" of heavy wet snow. Looks pretty from indoors. If it were a bit warmer, I'd head out for a slippery walk on the bike trail, but it's only 23 and since I'm FINALLY over my cold (had it for over 2 weeks!), I better not risk it.




I feel like I've been away from my blog for a long time! Just been taking it easy, curling up with my kitty, sipping tea, trying to get healthy. I have three book reviews to write, as well as a new recipe for my food blog. I'm hoping to get those posted this week.


Oh, and we bought a new SUV! It's a 2006 Nissan Xterra and is quite nice on these snowy days. As much as I love my MiniCooper, it's been a lot of fun driving Rod's new car. Almost makes me want one of my own. Almost.

January 14, 2007

The Way the Crow Flies


The Way the Crow Flies by Anne-Marie MacDonald
Fiction
Finished on 1/10/07
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)
Chunkster Challenge Book #1



Shortlisted for the 2003 Giller Prize

Publisher Comments:

The optimism of the early sixties, infused with the excitement of the space race and the menace of the Cold War, is filtered through the rich imagination of high-spirited, eight-year-old Madeleine, who welcomes her family’s posting to a quiet Air Force base near the Canadian border. Secure in the love of her beautiful mother, she is unaware that her father, Jack, is caught up in a web of secrets. When a very local murder intersects with global forces, Jack must decide where his loyalties lie, and Madeleine will be forced to learn a lesson about the ambiguity of human morality – one she will only begin to understand when she carries her quest for the truth, and the killer, into adulthood twenty years later.


What a great start to the New Year! This hefty novel (810 pages) may actually wind up on my Top Ten for 2007. It took me close to ten days to read, but I never once got bogged down, nor did I feel like I had to wade through a lot of extraneous detail. When I began reading, I had no idea that the story was based on a fictionalized version of a murder that took place in 1959 on an air force base in Ontario. (The author was raised in the area at the same time.) For more information about that specific case, go here (although, if you plan to read the novel, I suggest you wait to read about the real murder after you’ve finished.).

This book has stirred up a lot of memories from my childhood. I turned 8 in 1969, so I’m a bit younger than the main character, yet I think I had the same sense of blissful ignorance as Madeleine. While I don’t remember the Cuban Missile Crisis or “duck and cover” drills, I do remember Things go better with Coke, TV sets with rabbit ears and only a handful of channels, watching Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color in black and white, Tang and Space Food Sticks, and the Apollo 11 moon landing on July 16th, 1969. (We were on our sailboat out in the middle of Whiskeytown Lake in California.) Carole King’s Tapestry, Don McLean’s American Pie and The Beatles (The White Album) make up the soundtrack of that particular time in my life. It was a simple, carefree childhood. We walked to and from school; bought penny-candy at Frankie’s corner market; played in the creek, catching minnows and tadpoles; rode our bikes hither and yon, not a care in the world other than losing track of time and getting in trouble for arriving home after dark. Boy, have things changed. Or have they?

There’s so much to say about this novel, but it’s impossible to go into great detail without revealing spoilers. The Orlando Sentinel sums it up quite well:

“Murder mystery, spy thriller, historical novel, morality play – The Way the Crow Flies is all of these. Add several interconnected plots and an undercurrent of evil in an age of innocence, and you’ve got an engrossing tale.”

Favorite Passages:

Afterwards, in bed with a book, the spell of television feels remote compared to the journey into the page. To be in a book. To slip into the crease where two pages meet, to live in the place where your eyes alight upon the words to ignite a world of smoke and peril, colour and serene delight. That is a journey no one can end with the change of a channel. Enduring magic.

And

There is nothing so persuasive to deep recall as the hum of the slide projector in the dark. The audible fuzz that follows each colour slide as it sh-clinks into view. The longer ago the picture, the longer the moment of silence before Dad’s cheerful voice in the dark: “That was a beautiful day, remember that day, Maman?”


I was completely captivated by MacDonald’s hypnotic story, and although I didn’t care for the abrupt leap forward in Madeleine’s life, I still enjoyed the book and highly recommend it. I have a copy of MacDonald’s debut novel (Fall on Your Knees) and just might have to add it to my stack for next month.

January 13, 2007

The Shepherd, the Angel, and Walter the Christmas Miracle Dog




The Shepherd, the Angel, and Walter the Christmas Miracle Dog by Dave Barry
Fiction – Holiday
Finished on 12/30/06
Rating: C (3/10 Ho-hum)





Like most couples, Rod & I enjoy reading the morning newspaper while savoring a good cup of coffee. When we were first married, part of our Sunday morning routine was to read aloud the funny bits & pieces from Dave Barry and Joyce Maynard’s columns. Barry generally wrote about all aspects of life: dogs, employers, fear of flying, and swimming in shark-infested waters, to name just a few. In her syndicated column, Domestic Affairs, Maynard focused more on her personal life as a mother of three young children. While I enjoyed parts of Barry’s column, I identified more with Maynard, particularly her anecdotes about sharing custody with her ex-husband.

Over the years, Rod’s accumulated dozens of Dave Barry’s books and up until now, I’ve never felt any compelling reason to read any of them. So it didn’t surprise me in the least when I finished The Shepherd, the Angel, and Walter the Christmas Miracle Dog and thought, “Meh. Cute, but nothing fabulous.” I also couldn’t help but feel thankful that it only took an hour or so to read. I may not have stuck with a longer story.