Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Zookeeper's Wife

THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE: A WAR STORY: Diane Ackerman: W.W. Norton: Nonfiction: 368 pgs.

Jan and Antonina Zabinski are the keepers of the Warsaw Zoo in Poland before, during and after the German occupation. This history tells of their efforts to shelter escaping Jews in their villa and the zoo’s buildings, as well as their involvement in the Polish Resistance. Ackerman brings the Zoo and its occupants, both human and non, to life as they survive this harrowing period in history.

I love reading stories of World War II and those brave people who sacrificed so much to save friends, neighbors, and strangers from danger and death. This book clearly describes the extremes in human nature the Holocaust illuminated, the atrocious acts of the Nazis and the heroic acts of those who fought against them. I can highly recommend this book to anyone looking for an accurate, sincere, and inspiring story of courage, sacrifice, and love.


The Lost Recipe for Happiness

The Lost Recipe for Happiness
By Barbara O'Neal
A Bantam Discovery, 2009. 447 pgs. Romance

Elena Alvarez is fired in the first pages of this engaging story. The same day she's hired as executive chef of a new restaurant in Aspen, Colorado. She's a brilliant chef (which is both why she was fired and hired) with the talent, warmth, and toughness to unite her new staff and make this new restaurant world-class. Although her career is successful she's never found a love that would endure. She might now. Elena also has ghosts that haunt her--a sister and boyfriend who were both killed in the car accident that she alone survived. The supernatural elements reminded me of the Milagro Beanfield War.

This was an enjoyable, quick read, although the last fourth of the book seemed anti-climactic. The romance story line is secondary, so this is really straight fiction. If it belongs in a sub-genre, it would chic lit. The interesting cast of characters include a horror film star and a gay chef somewhat reminiscent of captain Jack Sparrow. Punctuating the story are a number of mouth-watering recipes from the cuisine of the Southwest.


First Democracy: The Challenge of an Ancient Idea

First Democracy: The Challenge of an Ancient Idea
By Paul Woodruff
Oxford University Press. 2005. 284 pgs. Nonfiction

This is a book about democracy what democracy is and what democracy is not. The author begins by stating three features of government which are commonly equated with democracy: voting, majority rule, and elected representatives. Democracy does not exist just because any of these are present. Ok. So then what is democracy? The author sets out to demonstrate what democracy is by exploring 7 qualities of Athenian democracy: freedom from tyranny, harmony, rule of law, natural equality, citizen wisdom, reasoning without knowledge, and education. He then discusses the question "Are Americans ready for democracy?" A good question. A great book.


Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Hearts of Horses

THE HEARTS OF HORSES: Molly Gloss: Houghton Mifflin Co.: 2007: Fiction: 289 pages

This is a heartwarming story of an independent minded girl who during 1917 rode from ranch to ranch in remote Oregon, offering to break horses. Since many of the men were off at war, there was work available, even if she was a girl. Martha Lessen chose the "horse whisper" gentle approach instead of the harsh "buck the wild out of them" methods with amazing results. People soon noticed and in spite of her attempts to remain uninvolved, she becomes an important part of her clients' lives as they do hers. As Martha rides her circuit from ranch to ranch, you the reader go along sharing in each family's struggles, joys, and heartbreaks. I devoured horse books while growing up and it has been along time since I have found one that was a good simple clean "get lost in" story. This is an easy read recommended to anyone who likes the early west and of course horses.



ENVY: Anna Godbersen: Harpercollins: Young Adult: 405 pages

In the third book of the Luxe series, misunderstandings, secret plots, and scandal continue to rage through the high society circles of 1900 Manhattan, particularly as Henry Schoonmaker, his new wife, his wife’s brother, and his former love travel together to Florida, each intent on his or her own purposes.

The Luxe books are so defined by their plot twists and intrigues that it’s almost impossible to review this third book without ruining the story. Once again, though, the author smoothly writes an engaging story of the tangled desires of young men and women who appear to have everything and yet never quite achieve happiness, ending with another cliff-hanger that sets up readers for the fourth and final book.


Janson Directive

JANSON DIRECTIVE: Robert Ludlum: St Martin's Press: 2002: Fiction: 547 pages

Full of suspense, calculating maneuvers and intrigue this is trademarked Ludlum book. Paul Janson, former covert operative, now retired and working as a private security executive is "stranded, abandoned, and marked for murder by his old colleagues when he manages to survive an unsurvivable mission." The mission...rescue Peter Novak the internationally renowned philanthropist and statesman from the same terrorists who killed his own wife. After the successful rescue, Janson watches in shock as the plane carring Novak explodes. No one could have survived or could they? Quickly Janson becomes the target of someone's hit list, but who's and why? I listended to the audio version with an excellent Paul Michael as the reader but it took 3 discs before I could get into the story. This book is not for the squimish. Bodies pile up at every turn most graphically described on how how they came to be in that condidition. Language abounds. Janson's constant flashbacking to the Vietnam war made keeping plots straight a challenge. I just wanted the story to stick to the main plot, but if you are a Ludlum fan you will enjoy.


Monday, January 26, 2009

Heroes of the Valley

HEROES OF THE VALLEY; Jonathan Stroud; New York: Hyperion, 2009; 483pgs. Young Adult Fiction

Halli Sveinsson is a son of the House of Svein in the valley of the heroes, men whose cairns line the valley they died to protect in a pitched battle against the dreaded trows, ghastly nocturnal creatures of razor-sharp claws and hideous mien. A second son, Halli chafes against his lesser station, the prospect of being a farmer for life, and the cloistered life that shields him from the heroic opportunities his ancestors had. A menace and a gadfly, he eventually alienates his family, has only one real friend, a daughter of the House of Arne, and brings trouble to his House that may have no remedy. But Halli, a short, stocky, unheroic looking boy is much more than the sum of his parts, a young man of honor, intelligence, and kindness after all. Heroes of the Valley, an impressive follow-up to Stroud's beloved Bartimaeus Trilogy, is a fine Norse tale with deeply satisfying and unexpected twists which explores on many levels what is truly heroic and what may just seem so.


Friday, January 23, 2009

The Family Fortune

THE FAMILY FORTUNE: Laurie Horowitz: William Morrow: 2006: Fiction: 287 pages

Inspired by Jane Austen’s Persuasion, this is the story of Jane Fortune, a slightly past her prime single woman from an old family in Boston which has recently experienced some financial difficulties. Jane, the founder and editor of a well respected Literary Journal, called the Euphemia Review after her grandmother, her self-centered father and whiny sister are forced to rent out their Beacon Hill mansion. Even though Jane is in her forties, this is the first time she has had to leave the family home and strike out on her own. While struggling with this, her first love, Max Wellman, a writer who owes his career to being published in the Euphemia Review, comes back into her life.

I enjoyed watching the progression of Jane as she tries to figure her life out. The parallels to Persuasion are enjoyable, but this book does not live up to the spot-on social commentary of Austen's novels. Still, it was a pleasant read.


Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The English Patient

THE ENGLISH PATIENT: Michael Ondaatje: Knopf: Fiction: 320 pages

This book has been on my to-read list for years, but after finally getting to it, I have to say I am disappointed. Typically, the book is always better than the movie, but in this case I would have to say the opposite.

The English Patient is the story of four people all damaged either mentally or physically by war. It takes place in an abandoned Tuscan villa in Italy during the aftermath of World War II.

The characters are Caravaggio, a thief who was betrayed and had his thumbs cut off; Kip, a Indian Sikh who works as a sapper dismantling bombs left by the retreating Germans; Hana, a war nurse who’s had enough with death; and the English patient, a man who was burned beyond recognition in a plane crash and who may or may not be a traitor to the Allied Forces.

The story is very non-linear as it delves in and out of each character’s past and present. It is very similar to the film, but in my opinion lacks the emotional intensity I felt in the movie.

I do like the way Ondaatje writes and he has a very lyrical way with words, so I can’t say to skip the book entirely, but I guess I was just expecting more.


Little Brother

LITTLE BROTHER: Cory Doctorow: Tor: 2008: Young Adult: 382 pages

Set in the near future where techno-surveillance is much more prevalent, seventeen-year-old Marcus Yallow and his friends find themselves detained and interrogated after a terrorist attack on the Bay Bridge in San Francisco by a brutal unknown organization which they later discover is our own government. Marcus is eventually set free but warned he will be watched and that he cannot tell any one, including his parents, about being held by the department of Homeland Security.

This experience set Marcus down a path to try and convince the people (mainly adults) of the United States that we are losing our rights to privacy and freedom. He uses his techno-savy to setup what becomes known as the Xnet. A secret network where teens meet to discuss what they can do to prevent the government from taking away their rights.

While some people might find this book a little heavy-handed with the subject matter, I really enjoyed reading it. I found all the technical stuff fascinating. I thought the characters were well-developed and I just couldn’t put the book down.


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Going Home

GOING HOME: Harriet Evans: Downtown Books: Fiction: 437 pages

Twenty-something Lizzie grew up in Keeper House, her family’s ancestral English home, but after her uncle arrives for the Christmas holiday with a suspicious, American wife, the house is suddenly being sold with little explanation. Lizzie, who’s contemplating a move to L.A. and nursing a broken heart from a breakup with her boyfriend, begins scheming to save the house, all the while juggling relationships and helping plan her aunt’s wedding to an unconventional Australian carpenter.

This is a good choice for readers who enjoy Sophie Kinsella and Katie Fforde. Lizzie’s family crises, job crises, and relationship crises move the plot along in typical chick lit fashion, resolving satisfactorily right at the last moment, although readers will realize the truth about Lizzie’s ex-boyfriend long before the book’s characters do, which I found frustrating and considered something of a character flaw in Lizzie.


Princess of the Midnight Ball

PRINCESS OF THE MIDNIGHT BALL: Jessica Day George: Bloomsbury: Young Adult: 280 pages

In a retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses, the King of Westfalia’s daughters must dance at the Midnight Ball every night to pay their mother’s debt to a wicked sorcerer, but the princesses are forbidden to speak of the curse, and their father offers a reward to any prince able to solve the mystery of the girls’ nightly disappearance. It is only Galen, though, a gardener in the court with a skill for knitting, who is able to discover the girls’ secret and free them from the sorcerer’s enchantment.

This is a lovely story from the author of another retelling, Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow, and will be thoroughly enjoyed by fans of Shannon Hale and Mette Harrison.


Saturday, January 17, 2009

City of Ashes - Mortal Instruments book 2

CITY OF ASHES: Cassandra Clare: Simon Pulse: 2008: Young Adult: 453 pages

This followup to Clare's first novel-City of Bones-continues the story of Clary, a powerful Shadowhunter raised as a mundane (regular human) by her mother who wanted to shield her from her evil, power hungry father. As her mother languishes in a coma Clary slowly discovers the extent of her buried powers as she strives to help her friends and loved ones against the assault of the evil Valentine.


Friday, January 16, 2009

How to Ditch Your Fairy

HOW TO DITCH YOUR FAIRY: Justine Larblestier: Bloomsbury: Young Adult: 307 pages

Charlie lives in a world in which everyone has an invisible fairy that bestows its human with a very specific gift. Charlie’s fairy guarantees that she always finds a good parking spot, a gift that Charlie’s friends, family, and schoolmates use to their own advantage, causing Charlie to resent the gift. Desperate to rid herself of her fairy, Charlie joins forces with Fiorenze (who has an All-the-Boys-Like-You fairy) and the two take drastic steps to rid themselves of their fairies.

After a somewhat slow start that requires an adjustment to the vocabulary of the fictional New Avalon, this story becomes a funny, quirky read.


Monday, January 12, 2009

Cindy Ella

CINDY ELLA: Robin Palmer: Speak: Young Adult: 264 pages

Sophomore Cindy Gold publishes an anti-prom letter in her high school newspaper, but when she develops a crush on her SAT tutor, on top of the ones she already has on popular senior Adam Silver as well as a boy she has been exchanging instant messages with, she begins to doubt her own convictions.

This was a fun chick-lit style book. It is a fractured fairy tale of Cinderella but doesn’t follow all of the story elements of Cinderella. I enjoyed this quick romantic story.


The Tomorrow Code

THE TOMORROW CODE; Brian Falkner; New York: Random House, 348 pgs. Young Adult fiction.
A friendly argument between two teenagers about whether communication through time is possible turns into a frantic fight to save the world in this breakneck (and scary!) thriller from New Zealand. Tane and Rebecca's disagreement is shockingly solved when they detect a message from the future in gamma ray burst data which allows them to win the lottery; future messages enjoin them to use the money to halt the mysterious Chimera project, but by the time they have figured everything out, it is too late . . . maybe. To reveal any more would risk ruining the surprises of this finely tuned speculative novel. Falker is an expert at foreshadowing to build tension, and in taking his characters and his readers to the brink before pulling back or veering off. Highly recommended for teens and adults.


Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians

Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians
By Brandon Sanderson
Scholastic, 2007 308 pgs. Young Adult

This light-hearted young adult fantasy is pure fun. A very cleverly written adventure filled with entertaining nonsense and a bit of an important message. Alcatraz Smedry, a "problem child" has grown up in a series of foster homes. He never lasts long in one because he is cursed--breakage, accidents and destruction follow him everywhere. Then on his 13th birthday he receives an "inheritance" from his father (a bag of sand). Soon thereafter his grandfather shows up and the adventure begins. His grandfather teaches him that he has a special ability: he can break things (aha! It's not a curse--it's a special power).


The Last Book in the Universe

The Last Book in the Universe
By Rodman Philbrick
Scholastic, 2000. 223 pgs. Young Adult

This is a "tweeners" or young adult novel set in the post-apocalyptic future. The main character, never named other than "Spaz", lives in a "Latch" (neighborhood) which is part of the "Urb" (city). Each latch us run by a gang with a leader. This is where the "normals" all live. Crime and disease are rampant. Some of the people are degenerating into animals. Across the "zone" is "Eden" where the "proovs" (genetically improved humans) live.

The story is about Spaz who is befriended by "Ryter", an old man that Spaz robs. They team up when Spaz receives word that his sister is dying and he wants to see her again.

I picked this up because it looked vaguely interesting and was a bit put off by the contrived slang at the very beginning then I warmed up to it and found it increasingly interesting. Once I learned that the main character was epileptic and his sister was dying of leukemia I was hooked.


Monday, January 5, 2009

Love Walked In

LOVE WALKED IN: Marisa de los Santos: Dutton: Fiction: 307 pages

Just like a movie, Cornelia’s life changes forever when a handsome man walks into the café she manages. Martin is a charming, Cary Grant look-a-like, and Cornelia is swept up in his attentions, but it’s Martin’s estranged 11-year-old daughter, Clare, who’s just been abandoned by her mother, who steals Cornelia’s heart, and when Martin exits the scene, Clare remains. Written in beautiful prose, this is a lovely story of belonging that is continued in the author’s second novel, Belong to Me.


Friday, January 2, 2009

The Wordy Shipmates

THE WORDY SHIPMATES: Sarah Vowell: Riverhead Books: Nonfiction: 254 pgs.

‘The Wordy Shipmates” is Sarah Vowell’s short exploration into America’s Puritan roots. She tells of John Winthrop’s dream to build “a city upon a hill” which “cannot be hid.” Instead of focusing on the Plymouth story, the one we all learned in elementary school, we learn about the pilgrims who settled the area which would become Boston and the natives they displaced.

I have not read a lot of nonfiction recently, and this was a perfect transition for me. Sarah’s narration is quick and witty. She paints the people and events in a very relatable way. I would recommend this to anyone reluctant to venture into the world of nonfiction, especially if they enjoy a little bit of irreverent snarkiness.