Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Last Days of California

Cover image for The Last Days of California : a novelThe Last Days of California
By Mary Miller
Liveright Publishing Corperation, 2014. 233 pgs. Fiction

Jess is a 15 year old with a compulsive sweet tooth on a road trip from Alabama to California with her parents and older sister in order to convene with a group of evangelical believers for 'the rapture'. Her father, convinced they will all be zapped into heaven, spends money they don't have with abandon, her mother softly tries to connect with her distant daughters, her older sister who is pregnant (unbeknownst to their parents) openly flaunts her disbelief in the rapture and god, while Jess is torn between her own faith, doubts, love of her parents and curiosity about the world.

The story takes place in the four days it takes them to make the drive, and gives a candid, poignant, and very real look into the pain, awkwardness, and empowerment that all teens experience. As the rapture draws nearer, each character and the family itself seem to unravel more and more. Miller's debut novel shows good promise and is a strong new voice in contemporary literature.


The Signature of All Things

Cover image for The signature of all things : a novelThe Signature of All Things
By Elizabeth Gilbert
Viking Adult, 2013. 512 pgs. Historical Fiction

Elizabeth Gilbert, of Eat, Pray, Love fame, is back at fiction after more than 13 years, with this interesting and gorgeously written book about Alma Whittaker, a female botanist of the 19th century. The book follows Alma from before her birth with the rise of her father (an early American botany baron), through her nine decades of life; following her passions, intellectual interests, frustrations, jealousies, loves, heart break, and gradual accumulation of wisdom. I found the writing to be intricate and detailed, and the book appealed to my fondness for beautiful prose and character driven arcs. The plot experiences a multitude of twists and turns, up and down with no satisfactory resolutions to many of the story lines, which to some could be frustrating, but I found to be a very accurate depiction of the real experiences of an individual over a lifetime. At the end I felt as though I had come to know Alma Whittaker more thoroughly than almost any character I've encountered.

Gilbert's historical and scientific research is fascinating, and her descriptions are exquisite. The book follows the amazing transformations in scientific understanding of the 19th century and raises, through both the scientific and interpersonal plots lines, many interesting philosophical ideas and questions. For someone looking for a satisfying plot line this will be a frustrating read, but for someone looking to really know a character in this interesting time period you will come away with a dear friend.


Blotto, Twinks and the Ex-King's Daughter

Blotto, Twinks and the Ex-King's Daughter
Simon Brett
Felony & Mayhem Press, 2011. 211 pages. Mystery.

When the ex-princess of the ex-king of Mitteleuropia is kidnapped from the ancestral home of the Duke of Tawcester, it is up to the rather stupid Blotto, the family's youngest son, to avenge the family honor by discovering the kidnappers, with a little help from his intelligent sister, Twinks.

Set in the carefree period between the world wars, this series has a lot of the tongue-in-cheek humor that characterizes P.G. Wodehouse's Wooster and Jeeves books. Although a little more heavy-handed than Wodehouse ever was, Brett nevertheless manages to create a fun mystery while poking fun at the literary conventions of the day, especially those employed by mystery writers. This book will appeal to anyone who has read (and loved) a classic mystery and is still willing to see the humorous side of the constant intervention and superiority of the amateur sleuth in police affairs.


Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Buddha in the Attic

The Buddha in the Attic
Julie Otsuka
Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. 129 pages. Fiction.

Otsuka gathers her research into Japanese mail order brides from the turn of the 20th century in this beautifully-written tale of Japanese American women and the effects of immigration on their lives. The story is both anonymous and personal at the same time, with the entire book written as a collective "we" with few individual names shared at all. Each chapter describes a different segment in the women's journeys - on the boat, with their new husbands, with their children, their work, the war - sharing everyone's experiences in one voice.

This was one of the most stunning books I've read in a long time. The narration was beautiful and really gave a sense of the community these women must have felt in a culture that would have been extraordinarily foreign to them. And while the stories are brief - an entire scene described in one sentence - and often tragic, the reader is able to understand the strength and courage these women had to keep going in desperate circumstances.


Saturday, May 24, 2014

Eight World Cups: My Journey Through the Beauty and Dark Side of Soccer

Eight World Cups:  My Journey Through the Beauty and Dark Side of Soccer
by George Vecsey
Henry Holt, 2014.  290 pages.  Nonfiction

Never too late, nor to early, to prepare for this year's World Cup which begins in a few week's time by reading a fine and funny book about "the beautiful game." Vecsey grew up in Queens and his high school didn't have a football team so he played soccer, but not very well. But he taught himself the the game by watching, and then writing about it - eight World Cups worth, as well as multiple matches on and off the telly.  Vecsey's narrative describes great plays, like Landon Donovan to Jozy Altidore to Clint Dempsey to Landon Donovan through the goal's mouth in South Africa's 2010 Cup. Or Brandi Chastain's left-footed penalty kick that brought the Women's World Cup victory to the United States. If you already like soccer, what a terrific little book this is to confirm your affection. If you don't know soccer, this is a great place to start in preparation for seeing what there will be to see next month in Brazil.


Better Off Friends

Better Off Friends
Elizabeth Eulberg
Scholastic Inc., 2014. 276 pages. Young adult fiction.

Macallan and Levi were best friends from the first day they met at the beginning of seventh grade. But they could never understand why their inseparable friendship made dating other people hard. Is it possible for a boy and a girl to be just friends?

This book was adorable! The thing I liked the most was that the story was told from both perspectives, with Macallan and Levi trading off chapters (they each had their own unique font) and creating extra dialogue between the chapters. (It's not often that you see a book where separate narrators will take a time out from the story to talk to each other!) Beyond the writing though, Eulberg tells a compelling story and creates engaging characters that you want to keep reading about. And you hope, while the two struggle to figure out what their relationship is going to look like as high school begins to take its toll, that they'll be able to maintain what is obviously a very special friendship for a very long time.


Friday, May 23, 2014

One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories

by B.J. Novak
Alfred A.Knopf, 2014. 276 pgs. Fiction

I checked out B.J. Novak's (a writer for the comedy show The Office and actor) book mostly expecting it to be similar to the other comedy writer memoirs I've enjoyed like Mindy Kaling's book or Tina Fey's Bossypants. However, I was not prepared for the depth, range, and in some cases brilliance of Novak's collection of odd little stories. None of the stories are in any way  memoir, but instead feel like a book of modern fables. The style is spare, wry, intelligent, and surprisingly touching in some stories; and Novak's comedic timing is genius. He is able, in these stories, to create something I found to be reminiscent of David Foster Wallace, Vonnegut, and Stoppard with his own unique voice.

I continually found myself laughing out loud as I read, and often in the same moment being rather astonished by the clever insight to the human experience Novak attained. There was the woman on a blind date with a warlord, a rematch of the tortoise and the hare race, and the brilliant poet turned translator who embodies the postmodern experience.  I wound up reading much of the book out loud to my husband who claims to 'not like' fiction, and he too found the stories very clever and enjoyable. All in all this is a surprising and very entertaining collection of stories that left me hoping that Novak is already working on his next collection.


Thursday, May 22, 2014

Yes, I Could Care Less

Yes, I Could Care Less: How to Be a Language Snob Without Being a Jerk
Bill Walsh
St. Martin's Griffing, 2013. 288 pages. Nonfiction.

Walsh, a seasoned copy editor, brings to light the crimes against the English perpetrated on a daily basis. He seeks to find the balance between a rigid adherence to the rules and complete linguistic anarchy, a middle ground that allows for error and yet still strives for greater accuracy.

I had high hopes for this book when I started it. I've done freelance copy editing and feel like I have a fairly good grammatical grasp of the English language. I've also read other recent books on grammar and punctuation that have been both informative and entertaining. This book fell short. The tone was very scholarly, yet he kept punctuating the text with jokes that weren't actually funny. And after a 25-page debate in the first chapter on whether it was more acceptable to use "I could care less" or "I couldn't care less," I found that I really could (or couldn't, depending on how you lean in the argument) care less what he said in the rest of the book, although I manfully struggled along to see if it would improve. A disappointing read.


Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Invention of Wings

The Invention of Wings
By Sue Monk Kidd
Viking Adult, 2014. 384 pgs.

The narration of this book switches between two equally fascinating and unique characters through their lives as owner and slave. Sarah is given Handful for her 11th birthday and for 35 years after, their stories are told. Each story is in its own way exciting and meaningful, but the stories combined show a great friendship and hope in the abolition of the slaves and even an uprising from Handful's perspective. Their stories are separate much of the time, but come together in their desire to fight for themselves and women's rights.

This story is based on the historical Sarah Grimke, and the author does a great job of creating a very detailed account of her life and other historical figures, as well as created characters for the story. The audio book was excellent as there were two narrators for both characters. It was a fast paced story for being over 30 years of growth in the two women.


Friday, May 16, 2014

Love Letters to the Dead

Love Letters to the Dead
By Ava Dellaira
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2014. 336 pgs.

This book was written in such a beautiful way that I would completely lose track of what I was doing while listening. The obvious pain of so many of the characters was real and tangible, but the hope in forming new relationships, learning to survive in their own lives, and being looked out for just every now and then was what made this teen book so memorable. Everyone was flawed but able to find something good in the end.

Laurel is the main character and she starts to write letters to a dead person for a school assignment. She chooses Kurt Cobain because her sister, May, loved him and his music. In the letters, Laurel changes as she writes to more dead people like Amy Winehouse, Amelia Earhart and Janis Joplin. The music ties in so perfectly to the emotions Laurel is getting through, and the story Laurel has to tell is heartbreaking. But through the letters she can accept what has happened and heal.


The Science of Happily Ever After

The Science of Happily Ever After
By Ty Tashiro
Harlequin, 2014. 288 pgs.

Dr. Ty Tashiro writes his  book from an informative point of view with his own research, different scientific studies, and data to explain why love relates to the decision making abilities of people and not necessarily the things we think we want. Tashiro thinks that the happiness in a relationship is based on the science of choosing the person from the start. With personal stories and tips, Dr. Tashiro expands on the idea of true love based on demography, sociology and psychology.

I enjoyed the anecdotes as well as the information. True love seems to be a popular subject to find the whys and why nots and this one was a fast read. Even with the researched facts, it wasn't over my head and I did like the different aspect Dr. Tashiro explains. As they are suggestions to finding true love, I can't say I will implement anything but I think the book was really well written and fun overall!


Wednesday, May 14, 2014


by Nora Ephron
Random House Audio, 2013. Fiction

I don't normally go for chick lit, but I was enticed by this title when I saw that it is read by Meryl Streep and I always go for Meryl Streep. Heartburn is the first novel (originally published in 1986) by the recently deceased queen of rom-com Nora Ephron, and is largely said to be the mostly autobiographical account of her own divorce from Carl Bernstein. It is a sharp, shrewd, witty take on the disillusionment of what seemed to be the perfect marriage and Streep's performance is the perfect blend of pathos and wry humor.

It is a quick listen, and I imagine a quick read, but I am not sure I would have sped through it, or even have been compelled to finish it if it were not for Streep's reading. Listening to her read it made it feel like a long rambling lunch with a girlfriend spilling her guts, crying on your shoulder and making you laugh all at once. A bonus, which would be better appreciated in physical book form, are the delicious recipes scattered throughout the text (since the protagonist is a professional food writer and builds her narrative around her favorite recipes which she shares freely). According to one review I read these were all real recipes from Ephron's personal arsenal. This would be a great listen for a beach vacation, or while doing some mindless task.


Monday, May 12, 2014

Uganda Be Kidding Me

Uganda Be Kidding Me
By Chelsea Handler
Grand Central Publishing, 2014. 272 pgs.

In Chelsea Handler's fifth book, she takes on her stories of travelling with friends and family in a way only Chelsea Handler can. This book had some actually really funny stories as well as her usual uncomfortably awkward ones. She writes in a way that is meant for storytelling and although based on trips she has taken, it is obvious there are some half truths or outrageous events that just are there for a laugh.

If you liked her other books, you will like this one. But don't pick it up if you are offended easily or don't care for her humor. She is definitely meant for a certain audience. The photos add to the actual trip she took and some stories, like getting to watch elephants stampede, breaking her leg skiing the Alps, and more create a sense of chaos and definitely crazy as she travels and forces people to go with her.


Thursday, May 8, 2014


by Jo Baker
Knopf, 2013. 352 pgs. Fiction

In general I tend to not be a huge fan of 'fan fiction' or spin offs from classic literature. But I had enough friends recommend Longbourn, that I decided to take chance, and I'm very glad I did. Longbourn is a revisionist retelling of Jane Austen's 'Pride and Prejudice', told from the perspective of Sarah, one of the housemaids. While this is certainly a riff on the 'upstairs downstairs' motif, Baker does a nice job with a historically accurate look at what life of a house servant was like during the 19th century; lots of laundry, cooking, emptying chamber pots, and little sleep.

The story mentions highlights from the 'Pride and Prejudice' plot, but does not follow it in great detail and instead takes you fully into the world of Sarah and her fellow servants, painting a somewhat darker background to the well loved story. Sarah's quiet world is turned around with the appearance of a mysterious new manservant who shows up out of the blue. Of course there is romance, and of course there is misunderstanding and mistakes, following the Austen tradition; but Baker, while writing in a style influenced by Austen still establishes her own distinct voice. I listened to the audio version and quite enjoyed it, the reader delivers and understated and polished performance.


The Forever Girl

The Forever Girl
Alexander McCall Smith
Pantheon Books, 2014. 316 pages. Fiction.

McCall Smith's latest book follows two love stories. Amanda and David have a fairy-tale life on Grand  Cayman: two children, a nice house, a stable job, friends and clubs. Everything is idyllic, until Amanda suddenly realizes that she is no longer in love with David. Meanwhile, Amanda's daughter, Clover, is in love with her childhood friend, James, but knows that he doesn't love her. In spite of his rejection, she carries a torch for him that can't be extinguished even as they are separated by oceans and continents.

McCall Smith explores the nature of love through the two storylines over the course of two decades. And, in doing so, he does what he does best: creates characters that you are interested in knowing. The plot of the story is really negligible; the beauty of the book comes from watching the inner workings of each character's mind and seeing them grow and evolve as people. While not a fast-paced, plot-driven book, the tone and writing are deeply introspective and soothing. (His books are ones that I love to listen to because the words have a rhythm and cadence that are as peaceful as a lullaby.) This is a book that will make you think and make you want to meet the characters you've read so much about.


Thursday, May 1, 2014

Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt

Flash Boys: a Wall Street Revolt
by Michael Lewis
W. W. Norton and Company, 2014.  271 pgs.  Nonfiction

Usually when Michael Lewis takes on Wall Street there are Bad Guys and Stupid Guys, but no Good Guys to speak of. In Flash Boys a young trader for the Royal Bank of Canada, Brad Katsuyama can't figure out why when he tries to make a trade for his clients, the market he sees on the screen disappears and the trade is negotiated at--usually--a higher price.  Enter the world of high-frequency trading where computers and fiber optics where traders can be in and out of the market so quickly they can affect pricing while you are just beginning the blink of an eye. In this world, any closer proximity to the markets that shaves milliseconds off your order arrival time puts you--or in this case--the big Wall Street banks and traders in a position to manipulate the markets to their advantage.  So has anything changed since the 2008 stock market implosion?  Not much, except everything is a) faster and b) more secretive (e.g., companies establishing and trading in "dark pools," exclusive trading sites that prevent their trades from being manipulated by the people they are manipulating. Katsuyama and his hand-picked team of geeks and honest brokers, decide they only way they can outmaneuver is to establish their own stock exchange. How they level the playing field and make sure that what you see on the screen is what you get is the substance of this brilliant, fascinating story of a light turned on at the end of the long dark tunnel that the stock market has become.  Some profanity, most of it richly deserved.