Thursday, December 31, 2009

Cannonball Read - Book 94

What a way to end the year. This book was ridiculous! Trite, overly religious, maudlin. I had hoped to recommend it to my book club, but no. Not at all.

Friendship Cake - C-

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Cannonball Read - Book 93

This book wasn't really good enough to merit a long description or review. Here's what's I'll tell you: Josie is turning 16. It's February 29. And every chapter is split in two, with part A told from Josie's perspective and part B told from the third-person omniscient perspective of every other character who crosses her path throughout the day. It's a clever literary device, I'll admit - you get the inner thoughts of a lot of "unimportant" characters that really flesh out the story, and I did enjoy the part B sections about the teachers at the school, Josie's parents, and a few of the other high schoolers.

But overall? MAN, is this book lame. First of all, it's set in Orlando. This gives the author plenty of opportunities to use Disneyworld as a location. Awesome? Not really. Also, no high school anywhere in the world has a much fun as the high school in this book. Josie gets to leave school during third period to take her drivers' test. A girl goes into labor at lunch. It's the day of auditions for Romeo and Juliet. It's also the day of the annual sophomore scavenger (more time at Disneyworld!) and the first day of Senior Dart Gun Wars. And later, Josie's buddies take her down to the lake for some traditional initiation (although she's the first one to turn 16, so how can they know what to do?). Thankfully, she doesn't get the guy, nor the part in the play she wanted (oooh, should I have told you there would be spoilers?), but she does go through a big change where she takes time to ponder her dreams and accept life as it happens.

One more thing: Josie feels that since she was born on Leap Day, there's absolutely no way she would die on Leap Day, too, so she's basically invincible one day every four years. But there's all this ominous stuff in the book that leads... NOWHERE. Here's an example: in one of the part B sections, Josie's friend's brother contemplates telling the girls that they shouldn't take up smoking - which leads to sentence like "Turns out he'd never have to." Now, maybe I'm just morbid, but coupled with all the references to Josie not dying on February 29, this little gem led me to think that she'd get in a car accident and die on her way home from the lake tonight. But no! The friend just takes a puff of a cig and chokes and sputters and decides on her own to never smoke! Pretty weak, if you ask me.

Thank goodness this was in the bargain bin at Borders - I only paid $1.99 for it.

Leap Day - C-

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Cannonball Read - Book 92

After the success of Beat the Reaper, Dad took it upon himself to send me another one his favorites from this year, Rain Gods by James Lee Burke. For those of you who are practicing your Monte impressions, it went a little something like this: "You're gonna read it and say 'Dad's two for two!'"

Well, not quite. Rain Gods was good, but nowhere near as good as Beat the Reaper. Rain Gods is the story of Hack Holland, a Texas sheriff, investigating a heinous crime, and the vast cast of characters who played a role in the events surrounding the crime. There's drugs, and guns, and Jewish matron who might be a queen, and above all, there's thick, rich Texas landscape. I could SEE this book played out as a movie. In fact, sometimes I felt like I was reading a screenplay (although without all those pesky acronyms and action lines) - the language was lush and descriptive, and the words "spoken" by the characters felt like lines of dialogue. Rain Gods totally needs to be optioned into a movie... although Tommy Lee Jones has already played one of JLB's other characters, Dave Robicheaux. And if you can't get TLJ to play a creaky alcoholic small-town Texas sheriff, who CAN you get?

In the interest of time, I slammed through the last 40-ish pages of this last night, and didn't really absorb everything that happened. Bad guys died, good guys got absolved, but the final showdown was a little contrived for my tastes. And the epilogue was LAME. But come to think of it, aren't all epiloguies lame? I call it the 19 Years Later Syndrome. I'm a sap, but I don't need everything to be wrapped up in a pretty package at the end. Leave some loose ends for the curious of the readership!

Rain Gods - B+

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Cannonball Read - Book 91

I got this book for the Natester for Christmas, but really that's just because I wanted to read it. Here's the back-of-the-book description for Dog Man:
"This is the story of Morie Sawataishi, who lived a radically unconventional life, particularly in ultramodern and blatantlly conformist Japan. He was a man most of us would never have the chance to meet, but from whom we have much to learn.

"After World War II, there were only a handful of Akita dogs left in Japan - the iconic dogs had been donated to the war effort, either eaten or their pelts used for coats. Morie became obsessed with the magificent, fiercely loyal dogs and single-handedly revived the four-thousand-year-old breed and saved it from extinction. He lived his life for the dogs, and he did it in a very un-Japanese way: defying convention, breaking the law, giving up the opportunity to live a fancy life in the city with a prestigious job. Instead, he moved to the isolated, rural snow country of Japan in the midst of the war, and never left, accompanied reluctantly by his wife, Kitako - a sheltered sophisticate from Tokyo. Due in large part to Morie's perseverance and passion, the Akita breed has become wildly popular, sometimes selling for millions of yen. Dog Man tells the story of Morie's unique and soulful path, and at each stage incorproates the special dog that came to define the period for him. From Three Good Lucks to One Hundred Tigers, Victory Princess to Shiro, the dogs and their kisho, or Akita spirit, spring from the page, as does Morie himself, who would become a revered figure in the snow country - a peaceful man, a mountain man, a dog man."

Sigh. This was a lovely book. The description tells you everything you need to know, but let me reiterate: this guy gave up "the good life" in pursuit of SAVING A BREED OF A DOG THAT WAS ABOUT TO BE EXTINCT. Can you imagine? Of course, the good life came to him in a different way, considering he's a now in the Akita Preservation Society Hall of Fame (who knew there was such a thing?), and his life was enriched by hundreds of dogs. He alienated his wife and children, and drank too much, and probably lost thousands of dollars by never selling a single puppy, but he came out in top - in his soul. Dog Man's first chapter and last chapter were pretty trite, but the meat in the middle were great.

Ever loved a dog? Read this book.

Dog Man - A-

Cannonball Read - Book 90

I bet a lot of you have heard of Holes, or have already read it, but for those who haven't, here's my quick overview: wrongfully accused Stanley gets sent to reform "camp" in the middle of the Texas desert, where he and the rest of his bad-kid group are made to dig gigantic holes every day after day to "build character." But there's more to Stanley, the camp, the holes, and the other kids than meets the eye, and Stanley's will and wiles prevail against the big bad Warden, the harsh elements and his family curse. Stanley Yelnats for the win!

This book is really well written, cute but not simpery, and I really liked that the worst of the bad guys was actually a lady. I could say more, but why? Just read it!

Holes -A-

Friday, December 25, 2009

Cannonball Read - Book 89

I love it when my MIL hands off books to me that just barely make the 200-page minimum... short equals quick! I started La's Orchestra Saves the World at about 9 PM last night and was finished with it by 1:30 PM today(and that includes a break to open presents). Alexander McCall Smith is the author of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, of which I have only read the first book - and I didn't love it. It's been quite a while since I read it, though, and now I can't remember why I didn't like it - and the MIL assured me that this was a quick, good read.

And it was! Set in England during World War II, La's Orchestra Saves the World is tale of suspicion, redemption, love, work, friendship, loss, all those things that make for a captivating and quick read (no sentences about tetrodotoxins in this one). Like so many books I've like a lot this year, LOStW makes you care about the characters and their circumstances, even the ones you aren't supposed to like very much. Not liking doesn't mean not caring, you know? La, the protagonist, survives as she can after personal hardship; lonely and intelligent, she struggles to find her place in her countryside community, and starts up a village orchestra to "boost morale" during a dark time. The healing power of music (or art or dance) may be a bit of a literary cliche at this point, but McCall Smith doesn't hit you over the head with it; it's subtle but powerful.

La's Orchestra Saves the World - B+

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Cannonball Read - Book 88

I've read a few books about zombies this year, but this was the first I've ever read about zombis. What's the difference, you ask (other than a missing 'e'?) Zombis actually exist. Here's the back-of-the-book description of The Serpent and the Rainbow:

"In April 1982, ethnobotanist Wade Davis arrived in Haiti to investigate two documented cases of zombis - people had reappeared in Haitian society years after they had been officially declared dead and had been buried. Drawn into a netherworld of rituals and celebrations, Davis pentrated the voudoun mystique deeply enough to place zombification in its proper context within vodoun culture. In the course of his investigation, Davis came to realize that the story of vodoun is the history of Haiti - from the African origins of its people to the successful Haitian independence movement, down to the present day, where vodoun culture is, in effect, the government of Haiti's countryside.
"The Serpent and the Raibow combines anthropological investigation with a remarkable personal adventure to illuminate and finally explain a phenomenon that has long fascinated Americans."

Except for one problem: TSatR illuminated NOTHING! This was one of the most complex, convoluted and confusing books I've ever read. My tiny brain could barely keep up with all the Creole words, much less the scientific names of all kinds of crazy plants. Here's just one sentence from the chapter titled In Summer the Pilgrims Walk: "Puffer fish grown in culture, for example, do not develop tetrodotoxins, and it is possible that the puffer fish, in addition to sythesizing tetrodotoxins, may serve as transvectors of either tetrodotoxin or ciguatoxin, a different chemical that originates in a dinoflagellate and causes paralytic shellfish poisonings." And thank God for the glossary, which I referenced about every eight pages to explain this spirit or that priest.

Not that it wasn't interesting. The sections on the history of Haitian slave revolt were fascinating (and some of the easiest passages to understand). And like most Americans, I know very little about Haitian culture and religion, so yes, it was illumniating. But it was like what I imagine reading a dissertation would be like: at times compelling, at others way over my head.

The Serpent and the Rainbow - B

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Cannonball Read - Book 87

I don't even know how this book got onto my bookshelf - I think maybe my MIL brought it to us, but I wasn't aware of such a thing and it doesn't look like she's read it lately, so I guess it will remain a mystery.

"Married for twenty years to Edward Berry, Lyddie is used to the trials of being a whaler's wife in the Cape Cod village of Satucket, Massachusetts—running their house herself during her husband's long absences at sea, living with the daily uncertainty that Edward will simply not return. And when her worst fear is realized, she finds herself doubly cursed. She is overwhelmed by grief, and her property and rights are now legally in the hands of her nearest male relative: her daughter's overbearing husband, whom Lyddie cannot abide. Lyddie decides to challenge both law and custom for control of her destiny, but she soon discovers the price of her bold "war" for personal freedom to be heartbreakingly dear."

As someone who likes female-centered historical fiction, it should come as no surprise that I quite enjoyed this book. Massachusetts in the 1760s is not a time period I'm very familiar with, so any liberties Sally Gunning took were lost on me, and I was fully immersed in the time period, the story, the language and the characters. It was only tedious in that many of Lyddie's days were full of mundane chores: milking the cow, building up the fire, making 200 candles, that sort of thing. But I imagine that the life of a whaler's wife was often tedious, driven by necessity instead of luxury (didn't chop enough wood this autumn? too bad, no fires for you this winter), so in this case, repetitive doesn't equal boring. Plus, Lyddie is a badass. She stops going to church AND she has wanton sex with an Indian. How sweet is that?

The Widow's War - B+

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Cannonball Read - Book 86

For my book club's holiday party, we did a book exchange. Awesome, right? Why give candles and tchotchkes when you can give someone a book that you read and liked but don't need to hold onto? (for the record, I gave away this) I received The Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer, and I really enjoyed it, but I'll be damned if I couldn't get past the similarities to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Which makes me feel bad: Andrew Greer, the author, has written an excellent "defense" of his book, which you can read here, but that doesn't change that I saw Benjamin Button before I read Max Tivoli and couldn't help comparing.

Ultimately, The Confessions of Max Tivoli is a better book than The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a movie, so it's not all bad that I saw the movie first, but you gotta believe me, once you've seen the movie, it's next to impossible to read the book without feeling that it borrowed heavily from the movie. Which it didn't. (really, you should read Greer's defense) Argh, I'm talking in circles! Long story short, pretty good, not awesome, kept seeing Brad Pitt in my head.

The Confessions of Max Tivoli - B

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Cannonball Read - Book 85

Maybe a spoiler or two in this one...

Here's a quick description of The Gates by John Connolly:

"Young Samuel Johnson and his dachshund, Boswell, are trying to show initiative by trick-or-treating a full three days before Halloween, which is how they come to witness strange goings-on at 666 Crowley Road. The Abernathys don't mean any harm by their flirtation with the underworld, but when they unknowingly call forth Satan himself, they create a gap in the universe, a gap through which a pair of enormous gates is visible. The gates to Hell. And there are some pretty terrifying beings just itching to get out...
"Can one small boy defeat evil? Can he harness the power of science, faith and love to save the world as we know it?
"Bursting with imagination and impossible to put down, The Gates is about the pull between good and evil, physics and fantasy. It is about a quirky and eccentric boy, who is impossible not to love, and the unlikely cast of characters who give him the strength to stand up to a demonic power.
"In this wonderfully strange and brilliant novel, John Connolly manages to re-create a the magical and scary world of childhood that we've all left behind but so love to visit. And for those of you who thought you knew everything you could about particle physics and the universe, think again. This novel makes anything seem possible."

Here's what I don't love about that book jacket description: the use of the world "impossible." Really? It was possible to put the book down. It wasn't covered in SuperGlue.

On to my review! This book was really, really good. It had a YA feel to it - and you all know how much I love YA. The characters were really likeable, even the unlikeable ones (you know, like the Devil and his minions, and while I figured that the little boy would win in the end, I was rooting for him nonetheless. You know how sometimes you don't root for the hero because he's, well, the hero, and whether you root for him or not, he's going to win? Not so with The Gates. Maybe the book jacket has it right: Samuel is impossible not to love. And hello!? There's a dog! And he's a thinking, feeling dog, but a dog nonetheless. John Connolly mentions what the dog smells, from the dog's point-of-view, but the dog never talks. Good job, JC. However, I could think of a better breed than a dachshund for Samuel's four-legged friend. Someday I'll tell you about my granddad's evil doxies...

One last thing: I really liked that Samuel has friends. Too often in books like this, the protagonist is all alone in the cold, cold world: an orphan, or an only child, and certainly with no buddies. But Samuel has AWESOME friends, Tom and Maria, as well as a mother who loves him(and Boswell, of course). And rather than alienate me by bucking the formula, the friends drew me in even further.

This 293-page book sure felt a lot shorter. Because I LOVED it.

The Gates - A

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Cannonball Read - Book 84

Entertainment Weekly told me I should read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and since I usually listen to what they tell me, I picked it up earlier this summer (and in the spirit of full disclosure, I must confess that I bought it at Urban Outfitters). But it didn't hold my interest then, so I let my dad borrow it. It didn't hold his interest, either. I decided to give it another go in the the waning weeks of Cannonball Read, just to see what the fuss was all about.

Even though the title pretty much says it all, I think my readers deserve the book jacket description:

"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains. So begins Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, an expanded edition of the beloved Jane Austen novel featuring all-new scenes of bone-crunching zombie mayhem. As our story opens, a mysterious plague has fallen upon the quiet English village of Meryton - and the dead are returning to life! Feisty heroine Elizabeth Bennet is determined to wipe out the zombie menace, but she's soon distracted by the arrival of the haughty and arrogant Mr. Darcy. What ensues is a delightful comedy of manners with plenty of civilized sparring between the two young lovers - and even more violent sparring and the blood-soaked battlefield. Can Elizabeth vanquish the spawn of Satan? And overcome the social prejudices of the class-conscious landed gentry? Complete with romance, heartbreak, swordfights, cannibalism, and thousands of rotting corpses, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies transforms a masterpiece of world literature into something you'd actually want to read."

So. I've never read Pride and Prejudice - and P&P&Z doesn't make me want to read it. I'm intrigued to see if there are passages that are word-for-word the same, but other than that, I'm sure that the characters are the same and the major plot points are the same, so really, adding the zombies probably didn't detract from the original. But boy oh boy, was this book ridiculous. Gruesome and funny, sure, and I suppose it held my interest once I got into it, but really, I don't think it was very good. This was one of those "great in theory, awful in execution" concepts. Zombies are hot right now, so let's throw some into a great piece of literature and see what we come up with - right on! But sadly, I didn't love it. And as you recall, sometimes I really, really love zombies. P&P&Z was a big let-down. I think that part of this is the original's fault. Elizabeth Bennet seemed silly to me from the get-go, as did her entire family, as did all of Darcy's buddies. Darcy was the only one I really liked, but I'm still not entirely sure how Elizabeth went from abhorring him to loving him. He was an ass, right?

Ugh. I don't know. No more Jane Austen for me, in any form.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies - C-

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Cannonball Read - Book 83

I wouldn't go so far as to say that Crowned by Julie Linker was recommended to me - more like, my teen titleholder was reading it, so it caught my attention. Miss Teen didn't have much to say about it, other than that each chapter opens with an interview question - questions like How do you handle people not liking you? and If you were on a TV talk show and could get one message across to viewers, what subject would you choose? These questions frame each chapter, so if you're into that sort of thing, it's a nice concept. And if you're preparing for a pageant, they might be good practice questions.
Crowned is pretty formulaic - teen girl with amazing best friend and popular boyfriend gets dumped by said boyfriend, tries to distract herself by the next big event coming up (in this case, the Miss Teen State pageant), and falls for an even better guy along the way. Of course, they can't get together too easily, and another girl does everything in her power to keep the heroine down. But good prevails, and the better guy comes to his senses and all is well. Yay!
Some parts of Crowned were awfully familiar to me - like, personally familiar. Turns out that Julie Linker is from Arkansas, where I had my short-lived yet triumphant pageant career. Good on you, Julie, way to expose Arkansas' dirty little secrets.
Easy, silly, fun, but not anything anyone other than a current or recovering pageant girl needs to read.

Crowned - B-

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Cannonball Read - Book 82

Book 82 is Now You See Him by Eli Gottleib. My friend Timmy foisted this on me at a party one night (he also gave me Book 81) when I was complaining about running out of books - more accurately, running out of books I want to read, since there's only about a bajillion books at my house but I can't face any of them. Now You See Him is the story of Nick, coping with the murder-suicide of Rob, his childhood best friend, and Rob's girlfriend; his lingering feelings for Rob's sister; the strained relationship with his aging parents; and the dissolution of his marriage. It's tough material - and there are twists!

I'm not one to shy away from dark novels, but holy cow, this one was a doozy. And twists are well and good, but one top of another tends to take me away from the plot - if at all possible, I like to forget I'm reading a story. And this was another book where the author seemed to be using big words and poetic devices just for the sake of using big words and poetic devices. Do you ever get the feeling that some people are just so proud to be authors?

Now You See Him - C+