Wednesday, August 31, 2011

HUMPDAY GIVEAWAY: Lunch Wars: How to Start a School Food Revolution and Win the Battle for Our Childrens Health

Who am I kidding?  This is not a subject near and dear to my heart.  I mean, I don't even have kids.  But I know there must be a few parents reading this blog getting ready to send their kids back to school, making this a very timely giveaway.  Oh, and if this book isn't your cup of tea, do pass along the link to someone you know who may be interested.  It would be nice to put this title in the hands of someone who will really enjoy it!

Publisher's Weekly says of this book:
Kalafa, producer and director of the documentary Two Angry Moms, delves more deeply into the subject of school lunch, offering a step-by-step action plan for parents hoping to make changes in their child's school lunch room. The author explains how the project started, revealing that efforts to provide her daughter with healthy food at home were being "undermined" by unhealthy choices at school (according to the author, the school cafeteria may well be "a microcosm of American fake food culture"). Kalafa serves up some scary statistics, noting the link between childhood junk food and obesity, diabetes, and learning, behavioral, and other health problems, and soberly observing that "our children's life expectancy is now shorter than our own." Kids who buy lunch at school, she notes, don't do as well academically; better food means better grades. With plenty of convincing evidence in hand, she then urges parents to visit their children's lunch rooms, create partnerships with teachers, school staff, and the PTO or PTA, conduct surveys, audit the school food environment, create an updated school wellness policy, and take other steps toward change. Kalafa also provides plenty of positive examples of schools that have gone the extra mile, establishing farm to school and other innovative and nourishing programs. This meaty, practical offshoot of Kalafa's film will help parents turn anger into positive action. (Sept.)
Wow, that sounds so San Francisco.  Anyway, I've got a lovely trade paperback galley of this fine book to give away.  All you have to do is post a comment below.  Usual rules apply.  Good luck to all!

The Usual Rules:
  • The giveaway is open to anyone with a U.S. mailing address ('cause I'm footing the postage).
  • To enter, all you need to do is post a comment below by Wednesday, September 7, 2011.
  • At my discretion, if there are less than five respondents, I can cancel or extend the giveaway.
  • Winner will be chosen by me with the help of a random number generator, and will be announced in the comments section of this thread.
  • Please check back to see if you've won. If you have left a way to contact you, I will do so.
  • The winner has one week to respond to me at with a mailing address, or I will choose a new winner.
  • If a second winner fails to respond, the book automatically goes to the lovely members of my face-to-face book club.
  • Previous giveaway winners are welcome to enter.
  • Finally, if at all possible, please comment below only if you're entering the giveaway.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A nice decade to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there

Girls in White Dresses
by Jennifer Close

Reading the jacket copy for Girls in White Dresses, I was expecting a fairly conventional chick lit novel—which is something I enjoy every now and again. However, as I delved into this novel of connected stories (a format I always seem to enjoy), I was delighted to discover something more substantive than I was expecting. Jennifer Close’s debut is so much more than 20-something women moving through a succession of weddings.

Girls in White Dresses is a coming-of-age novel, not of a single girl, but of an entire group of interconnected young women. They know each other from schools or jobs or through the friends of friends. The stories chart a progression of large and small events as these women move from their early 20s to the end of that pivotal decade. It’s about the growing you do as you enter adulthood, and the mistakes and detours you make along the way. I can honestly say that my life in my 20s bore almost no resemblance to the lives depicted on the pages of this book. Even so, there was a universality to that period of life that I absolutely recognized, and could enjoy looking back upon from the greater confidence and security of my 40s.

I’ve read reviews that suggested that this novel would be most enjoyed by the same 20-something women being written about, but I’m not sure that’s the case. There’s something really delightful about being able to revisit a period of your life, without it BEING your life. I can smile about the foibles of my 20s now. Not so much while I was living them. And so I smiled my way through Girls in White Dresses. There was plenty of humor along the way to give me cause to smile, and plenty of nostalgia. Written as a series of short stories, the characters populating Close’s novel were more like snapshots of women, showing them as they existed in episodic moments of time. But these women were idiosyncratic, believable, and occasionally quirky. (I love that Ellen dates ugly boys!) I will warn that there is a large cast of characters, and it takes a while to get a solid grasp of who is who, and where they are from story to story. Close’s prose seemed sort of choppy and spare as the novel opened, but either I got used to her style or things smoothed out as I got further into the novel.

I don’t know that you’ll find larger truths or messages in this book, but for whiling away a few hours, you could do far worse. I would love to follow these young women into their thirties and beyond.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Mailbox Monday: Post-grad edition

Today's mailbox was photographed in Livorno, Italy, of all places!

So, I haven't been a great blogger of late.  I've been busy doing that job that pays for rent and food.  Namely, I work for a university, and this past Friday was our graduation.  It was a lovely ceremony and a very happy occasion.  But I've been busy with off-site meetings, graduation, and an academic conference.  Part of the time I was living in a hotel and part of the time I was spending 4 hours a day commuting back and forth from the hotel.  That'll eat into a girl's blogging time, so sorry about that.  Hopefully, I'll be back on track this week.

Speaking of this week, I have absolutely nothing bookish planned.  I'm going to get through the next several days, and then I've got a long weekend.  And I am going to spend at least 48 hours of it someplace warm and sunny.  With a big pile of books.  Friends are optional.

I was so very busy over in academia, that I didn't really have a chance to acquire many books.  This is a manageable list.  Yay!

Oh, before I forget:  The giveaway for Eyes Wide Shut by Andrew Gross is still open, and is in risk of being cancelled for lack of interest.  You know what that means?  Odds are excellent if you want to enter.

Start Something That Matters
by Blake Mycoskie
Release date: September 6, 2011
Source: Paper galley from publisher

I've already gifted this galley to a professor I work with.  He's all about social transformation, as is the book, so it seemed like a good match.

Darkness, My Old Friend
by Lisa Unger
Release date: August 9, 2011
Source: Amazon Vine Program

I've been a fan of Unger's since her breakout novel, Beautiful Lies.  Truthfully, I haven't liked anything as much as that first book, but they've all been enjoyable.  I read Fragile, the prequel to this novel, so I'll read this one too.  It'll be a quick read.

by Simon Toyne
Release date: September 6, 2011
Source: Amazon Vine Program

You may recall that I received a galley of this novel last week.  I picked it up and got sucked in immediately.  Since I had more Vine choices than books I was all that interested in reading, I decided to choose this book I knew I'd be reading anyway.  Now I have a spare galley to give away.

by Terry Pratchett
Release date: October 11, 2011
Source: Electronic galley from publisher

I won't pretent to have read all or most of the Discworld books, but I've read enough to know the world.  I thought, why not?  I've always wanted to read more of these, and there are many hard copies on my bookshelves.  So, I've got a lengthy backlist to enjoy in years to come.

Art + Paris Impressionists and Post-Impressionists: The Ultimate Guide to Artists, Paintings and Places in Paris and Normandy
Release date: July 19, 2011
Source: Electronic galley from publisher

After reading Christopher Moore's Sacre Bleu, I was left with a slight regret that I didn't know more about the real artists and art he wrote about in his novel.  This book is the perfect companion to go along with it!  Now the only problem is restraining myself from jumping on a plane to Paris.  I have frequent flyer miles burning a hole in my pocket!

The Language of Flowers
by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
Release date: August 23, 2011
Source: Electronic galley from publisher

This was a fairly buzzy debut novel at BEA.  Also, it's set in and around San Francisco, so I've been meaning to read it.  It finally got to it this week.  It was enjoyable, but nothing I'd feel the need to rave about.  Review TK.

How to Eat a Cupcake
by Meg Donohue
Release date: March 13, 2012
Source: Electronic galley from publisher

This is another novel set in San Francisco, which is basically what convinced me to read it.  Plus, I give myself free dispensation to eat as many cupcakes as I like while reading it.  I should read it in a cupcake shop, as I read Chocolat in a chocolaterie.

Books finished this week:

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
Eyes Wide Open by Andrew Gross

Currently reading:

Sanctus by Simon Toyne
Luminarium by Alex Shakar
Sleeping Beauty by Elle Lothlorien

So, give it up--what have you been reading?  What books have you acquired this week?  Please let us know in the comments!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

HUMPDAY GIVEAWAY: Eyes Wide Open by Andrew Gross

Despite my best intentions, I have not had a chance to read this novel this week, so we will have to rely on this starred review from Kirkus:
Inspired by the death of the author’s nephew, this is a grim psychological thriller sure to shock readers.

Nothing is evil if it’s done out of love. Such is the mantra of a convicted murderer’s cult followers. A troubled teenager falls from a cliff, an apparent suicide. But why would the boy remove one sneaker before jumping? And where is that sneaker? Evan Erlich’s distraught father Charlie is convinced that Evan did not kill himself even though the family had serious internal conflicts. Charlie himself had once led a drug-addled life, and he and his wife Gabby depend on others for their support. Narrator Jay Erlich is Evan’s brother and a successful physician with a loving wife and family and far better circumstances in life. He is drawn deeply into a tangle of fear in which Evan’s death is only the beginning. Jay initially seeks to comfort his brother and sister-in-law over their son’s death, but like any good hero he asks too many questions and never knows when to quit. He crosses paths with Susan Pollack, who has just been released from prison after more than 30 years. Her lover, Russell Houvnanian, is an unrepentant killer with a magnetic personality and a long memory. Houvnanian lingers forever in a super-max prison at California’s Pelican Bay and rarely even sees daylight. What can these people possibly have to do with poor Evan or with the other victims who turn up? And what about the eyes carved into the bodies? Trouble piles on trouble, and absolutely no one is safe, even when it seems that no more disasters can happen.

An emotional, frightening study of evil with believable characters and a relentless pace. Readers who wear pacemakers will want to check their batteries before they open the book.
Other than that, for more info on Eyes Wide Open there's a great interview between Andy and Lisa Gardner on the novel's page here.

I am looking forward to reading and reviewing this novel in the immediate future, and hopefully I'm not the only one, because I have a shiny, new hardback copy to give away to someone who posts a comment below by Wednesday, August 31, 2011.  Usual rules apply.  Good luck to all!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Linwood Barclay asks, “What if…”

The Accident
by Linwood Barclay

Two years ago, a New York woman caused a drunk driving accident that killed eight people, including herself and several children. She was severely impaired, and yet no one in her life seemed to be aware she had a substance abuse problem. All of America watched the tragedy unfold in horrified speculation. And thriller writer Linwood Barclay looked at the news coverage and said, “What if…”

What if there’s more to this story than meets the eye? Because in the opening pages of his new novel, The Accident, protagonist Glen Garber is coping with a similar situation. His wife Sheila, a social drinker at most, has caused a traffic accident that took her life and the lives of innocents in another car. Her blood alcohol level is off the charts. The only blessing is that their eight-year-old daughter, Kelly, was not with her.

As Glen and Kelly try to pull themselves together and move forward with their lives, a series of strange and menacing events occurs. Kelly accidentally overhears something while on a sleep-over at her best-friend’s home. The parental reaction seems entirely out of proportion. The economy is hitting their part of Connecticut hard. Everyone seems to be hurting for cash. The question is: what are these suburbanites willing to get mixed up in to get it? Glen seems to be surrounded by weirdness on all sides, and is now reevaluating people he’s known and trusted for years, as slowly events begin to cast Sheila’s accident in a new light.

This was my introduction to Linwood Barclay’s work, and The Accident was an enjoyable thriller all around. Glen was an appealing everyman in a bad situation. It was easy to empathize with him. Supporting characters may not have been as well-developed, but they fulfilled their function within the plot. As for the plot, it was enjoyably convoluted, and unfolded a measured pace that kept me turning the pages. All in all, it was a quick, enjoyable, not-too-challenging read. Bonus points to Barclay for writing stand-alone novels instead of the all-too-ubiquitous series I see everywhere these days. I’ll look forward to seeing what he produces next, and may have to check out his backlist as well.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Someone told me it's all happening at the zoo...

I do believe it,
I do believe it's true.

So, my family went to the National Zoo today, and my little nephew Joshua asked if I was coming.  I'm so bummed I couldn't go with them!  Anyway, since I've spoken of my family on occasion, I thought I'd share this lovely photo my sister just sent.  That's her, my mom and dad, new baby Jonah, and his big brother Joshua. 

Thanks again to all for their kind thoughts for the family earlier this summer!

Mailbox Monday: I need a vacation edition

In case you're wondering, these mailboxes are in Palos Verdes, California, and the photo was taken by Tash.  Stunning!

Meanwhile, I'm counting the minutes until Labor Day Weekend, because unfortunately, I'll be working every day until the not-long-enough weekend.  Mostly, I need to get away from this unrelenting cold.  Blech.

So, I got a little reminder this week that people occasionally read what I'm spewing out onto the 'net.  Last Monday I was geeking out about getting a letter from David Ebershoff?  Yeah, he posted in the comments over the weekend.  *blush*  (You're awesome, David.  I wrote the #1 review for The 19th Wife on, and I'm totally available to do freelance editorial work for Random House.)  And, yes, I'll be reading that novel he sent me, the Orphan Master's Son, sooner rather than later.  I need to see what all the fuss is about.  Okay, moving on...

This past week, I had a great book group meeting in a local bar, as is our custom.  And, a bookseller friend and I had the first of what we've decided should be a quarterly dinner to compare notes on what we've read, and what interesting titles are about to be released.  Also, we gossiped about people we know.  This coming week, I would love to catch Lev Grossman's local book tour stop at Kepler's, but I'm not sure my work will allow it.  It's graduation week at the university.  I'll let you know next week if I make it.

Happily, it's a short list of books this week, but a very cool list.  And this first book will have a place of true honor in my home...

Devil's Plaything
by Matt Richtel
Release date: May 3, 2011
Source: Limited edition hardback from author and publisher

When this novel was published a few months ago, there was a SNAFU and the acknowledgements page was omitted.  This is unfortunate, but not the end of the world.  At his book signings, Matt had pre-cut acknowledgement pages that people could slip into the books.  But he wanted the people who had helped him with what turned out to be a challenging novel to get the real deal.  So, this past week, I received a signed, very limited edition hardback of Devil's Plaything.  I have one of only 50 in the world.  And I am very kindly acknowledged.  Thank you, Matt.

by Simon Toyne
Release date: September 5, 2011
Source: Paper galley from publisher

I may have heard of this religious thriller at some point, but looking at the galley, it seems like it's going to be a high-profile debut.  I got kind of burned out on religious thrillers in the wake of The Da Vinci Code, but this does look fun.  I think I'll be giving it a read.

The Most Dangerous Thing
by Laura Lippman
Release date: August 23, 2011
Source: Finished hardback from publisher

I really enjoyed Lippman's last stand-alone, and I am very much looking forward to reading this one.  Thanks, Shawn!

A Bitter Truth
by Charles Todd
Release date: August 30, 2011
Source: Finished hardback from publisher

I live this novel's cover, but don't feel compelled to jump into this series in progress.  If we've got a swarm of Todd fans here, speak up about a giveaway.  Otherwise, I suspect it will be given away via the face-to-face book group.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
by Alan Bradley
Release date: April 28, 2009
Source: Trade paperback from bookseller

Apparently the tiniest of crumples on the corner of this book makes it "damaged merchandise."  My bookseller friend threw it at me an suggested I read it.  I have heard good things and been interested in the series...

The Time in Between
by Maria Duenas
Release date: November 8, 2011
Source: Galley from bookseller

So, after our dinner, my bookseller friend and I sifted through the store's galleys for the next six months.  Both of us agreed that it was a sad collection.  Where's the copy of the new Eugenides?  Why can't she get hold of the forthcoming Murakami?  Anyway, I suggested a couple of books she might read, and I walked away with a galley of this Spanish debut that Simon and Schuster is promoting.  It's a bit of a doorstop, so we'll see. 

Sleeping Beauty
by Elle Lothlorien
Release date: unknown
Source: Draft from author

I've only just begun reading this draft, but I like what I've seen so far!

Books finished this week:

Sacre Bleu by Christopher Moore
The Accident by Linwood Barclay
Sister by Rosamund Lupton
Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler

Currently reading:

Sleeping Beauty by Elle Lothlorien
Luminarium by Alex Shakar

So, faithful readers, what have y'all been reading?  What books did you acquire this week?  Please let me know in the comments!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The elephant in the room...

by David Whitehouse

Human beings are, by nature, curious creatures. Every now and again I’ll hear a story, and I simply can’t imagine the circumstances. Certainly this is the case when I hear about the life (or unfortunately more often, the death) of a profoundly morbidly obese individual; someone literally unable to shift their own weight. How does a person get so big, I’ve wondered. Who enables this? How is a person so immobile for so long that their skin FUSES with the fabric on which they rest?

David Whitehouse’s auspicious debut novel deals with just such an individual, but I don’t want to give the impression that this is some sort of salacious tabloid story. On the contrary, it’s a portrait of a family viewed through the eyes of the younger son. This first-person narrator is never actually named, beyond being “Mal’s brother,” so fully is his identity subsumed.

Malcolm Ede was an unusual and difficult child. How much of it was attention-seeking (public nudity will do that), and how much was the attention merely a by-product of other forces that drove Mal’s behavior? It’s hard to know, because we’re not inside Mal’s head. Their life together is viewed through the prism of his brother’s eyes. And this is what he sees, “His idiosyncrasies amplified his achievements. When he swam, it seemed he swam farther than anyone else. An outsider on his own terms, he was free to build his own rules around him, rules that no one but him could hope to understand. Not even me. I was carried in his slipstream…” And perhaps because of who and what Mal is, his brother is the type of person who, when addressed by the wrong name, won’t bother correcting you.

At the present time, Mal is 45 and his brother is 43. They are both currently sharing a bedroom in their childhood home. For Mal, and for his family, it is “Day Seven Thousand Four Hundred and Eighty-Three.” That is, it’s been 7, 483 days since Mal last left his bed. He refused to get up on his 25th birthday, and there he has lain for the past 20 years. Eating. Today he is the fattest man in the world, and there are estimates that he weighs over 1,400 pounds! Says his brother, “He looks like an enormous sea monster caught and displayed in a Victorian museum of the grotesque.”

So again, how does this happen? Who enables this? Says his brother, “I look into Mal’s eyes every day. There is nothing wrong with him. He isn’t mad. He wasn’t mad when he was a child, he isn’t mad now as a great big deflated hot-air balloon of skin. This isn’t what we need to discover. You can’t get the right answers unless you ask the right questions. And there is one. Why?” There are no simple answers to these questions, but in the telling, we will learn of the entire Ede family’s history together, told from the boys’ early childhood, moving forward in time, with interludes in the present day.

Mr. Whitehouse’s story-telling ability is excellent. He will frequently reference something out of context, making the reader sit up and pay attention until the explanation surfaces. The book is short at 256 pages, and most of the 84 chapters are only a few pages at most. It’s a quick read, and I found myself more and more compelled by the story and invested in the characters as I went along. It’s all so dysfunctional, including the romance at the heart of this story, but I cared about these people.

“Mal grew bigger and wider and rounder and heavier. Like a colony of ants, we worked and lived and fed around him, pretending that everything was normal, which in the strangest of ways it was.” The elephant in the room.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

HUMPDAY GIVEAWAY: Girls in White Dresses by Jennifer Close

Hi Readers,

Sorry to leave you hanging this week.  I've been super busy, working night and day, so we're going to make this a quick and dirty post. 

This week's giveaway is a signed, trade-paperback galley of the recently published debut novel Girls in White Dresses by Jennifer Close.  Here's what some are saying:
"Mixed in with the trials and tribulations of the protagonists are humorous vignettes from the lives of some of their other friends and acquaintances—many of whom are on their way to the altar or trying to find a way to get there. . . . Reminiscent of Melissa Bank’s The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing. It is modern and funny, with original, wry observations. Close’s debut novel will appeal to both fans of contemporary women’s fiction with a hip vibe and readers who enjoy old-school chick lit." —Library Journal (starred review)
I have to admit that I also thought of Melissa Bank as I read this novel of stories.  While there was a lot of humor within the pages, I felt like there was more going on than just chick lit fluff.  It's about being a woman in your 20's, and the growing you do during that decade and the mistakes and detours you make along the way.  My own 20's bore little resemblance to what was depicted in the book, nonetheless, there was a universality to that period of life that I absolutely recognized and could enjoy looking back upon from the greater confidence and security of my 40's.  When I finally write a review, I'll be giving it a solid 4 stars.

So, that's the book up for grabs.  If you want it, please leave a comment saying so below by Wednesday, August 24th.  Same old rules.  I don't have the time to cut and paste them right now, but you guys know the drill.  Good luck!

Monday, August 15, 2011

Mailbox Monday: The geeking out edition

So, I'm geeking out a little.  The past few weeks you guys have seen references to a book I was reading called Ready Player One, a debut novel by Ernest Cline.  (My rave review may be read here, or simply by scrolling down.)  So, I don't know Ernie Cline, never met him, but in honor of his book going on sale tomorrow, the theme of this week's mailbox photos is geeking out, LOL.  Yes, these are all mailboxes.  Finding these photos was so much fun!  Say what you will, but the geeks have a great sense of humor.

Incidentally, even though I don't know uber-geek Cline, I did have some minor correspondence with him last week.  He signed his email, "MTFBWYA."  You do not want to know how long it took me to figure that out.  Yeah, I'm totally a geek, but a different flavor geek than Mr. Cline.  I'm a book geek, and I show my true colors each week on this blog, LOL.

Case in point:  I totally geeked out last week because I got a personal letter (snail mail to me specifically, not a form letter) from Random House editor extraordinaire (and an awesome novelist in his own right), David Ebershoff!  It was nothing important, and I rather doubt most of his correspondents are as excited as I was, but I take my thrills where I get them, okay?
I have to say that this was an awesome week for books, too!  I mean, they're all pretty awesome, really.  Are you ever astounded by just how many great books are out there?  I am, all the time.  On that note...

Ragnarok: The End of the Gods
by A.S. Byatt
Release date: February 7, 2012
Source: Electronic galley from publisher

This fall seems to be the season to face down all my literary fears.  I've always been intimidated to read Byatt.  But this one is small, and seems... Well not accessible, but, uh, shorter.  Don't judge me.

by David Whitehouse
Release date: August 2, 2011
Source: Finished hardback from publisher

This British debut novel has been on my radar since it got a rave (starred) review in PW.  I finally got around to requesting a review copy, and I'm so grateful to Simon & Schuster for accomodating my request in record time.  This is a fascinating character study and a great story!  Look for my review later this week.

Too Much Stuff
by Don Bruns
Release date: December 12, 2011
Source: Electronic galley from publisher

Three little words:  Trashy Underwater Fiction!  A comic mystery featuring missing gold and scuba diving in the Florida Keys.  And it's releasing the week of my birthday.  What a lovely gift!

The Twelfth Enchantment
by David Liss
Release date: August 9, 2011
Source: Purchased at M is for Mystery (Because I love my local indies!)

This book is such old news already.  Noneless, I did actually purchase it, read it in record time, love it, and agonize over a review last week.  You can see it here

The Orphan Master's Son
by Adam Johnson
Release date: January 10, 2012
Source: Paper galley from publisher

Now, this is something very interesting, and I hadn't heard about it until it showed in the mailbox last week.  For starters, Adam Johnson is local, and I see him around the San Francisco literary scene.  Nice guy.  The novel has an enthusiastic blurb from David Mitchell on the cover, thus assuring that I will read it.  But it sounds fascinating, "Part breathless thriller, part story of innocence lost, part story of romantic love, The Orphan Master’s Son is also a riveting portrait of a world heretofore hidden from view: a North Korea rife with hunger..."

Girls in White Dresses
by Jennifer Close
Release date: August 9, 2011
Source: Electronic galley from publisher

I picked up a couple of signed galleys of this novel at BEA, but I'm so much more likely to review if I can read it on my Kindle.  To date, Knopf--who are very kind in supplying whatever books I request--have been very difficult about electronic galleys.  Hopefully that is changing.  See, Knopf, I finally read it.  Review TK.  In fact, should this be this week's Humpday Giveaway?  Maybe...

Sacre Bleu: A Comedy d'Art
by Christopher Moore
Release date: April 3, 2012
Source: Unbound MS from publisher

Okay, I don't want to hear about the 14 typos that you found in the last Chris Moore novel, because I'm one of the very last pairs on eyes that checks for such things.  All I can say is that there would be even more errors if I were not doing so.  Proofreading for Chris can be interesting, as recent novels have ranged from pseudo-Shakespearian English to... Abby Normal.  'Nuff said.  And this one's full of fucking French (his words, not mine), with the accents.  I have been looking forward to reading this for the past couple of years, because I kept hearing these tantalizing tidbits from Chris's girlfriend.  She told me that this was his best novel since Lamb, and she may be right.

Eyes Wide Open
by Andrew Gross
Release date: July 12, 2011
Source: 2 Finished hardbacks from publisher

I'd been sort of interested in reading this novel, but it was easier to just read the millions of books already in my apartment.  Now this book is in my apartment, and I will look forward to reading it in the near future.  And di you notice that the nice folks at HarperCollins sent two copies?  One is for you guys!  Another contender for this week's giveway.  (Let me know in the comments if you have a preference.)

Shades of Milk and Honey
by Mary Robinette Kowal
Release date: August 3, 2011
Source: Trade paperback purchased at Borderlands Books

I was over by Borderlands Books this weekend and allowed myself to be hand-sold this novel I had not heard of before.  Apparently, if I liked David Liss's latest, I will definitely like this one as well.  Mostly, I just like supporting my local independent bookseller, so that I always have a lovely shop to shoot the breeze in.

Ready Player One t-shirt!

Yes, I got an extra bonus gift in the mail last week, a cool and stylish Ready Player One t-shirt from my friends at Random House.  It is so very cool and awesome!

Books finished this week:

The Twelfth Enchantment by David Liss
One Day by David Nicholls
Bed by David Whitehouse
Girls in White Dresses by Jennifer Close

Currently reading:

Sacre Bleu by Christopher Moore
The Accident by Linwood Barclay

So, what awesome books have you guys been reading this week?  What have you brought into the house?  What do you want me to give away on Wednesday?  Let me know!

Friday, August 12, 2011

Funny & perverse

Machine Man
by Max Barry

I have been a fan of Australian humorist Max Barry since his very first novel. For whatever reason, we’re on the same wave-length. But I have no illusions that this novel will find universal appeal. For one thing, the humor is dark, satirical, and squirm-inducing, and it made me uncomfortable even as I laughed.

The novel opens in the midst of a crisis; Charlie Neumann can’t find his phone. “I didn’t know how warm it would be today. It might rain, it might be humid, I had no idea… I would have to choose clothes without information on the environmental conditions. It was insane.” This loss has really thrown him off his game. Somehow the research scientist pulls it together and gets himself to the lab at Better Technologies. Unfortunately, spotting the errant phone at exactly the wrong moment spells disaster. The distraction is enough for Charlie to get his leg caught in an industrial clamp. The leg is crushed, and he wakes up an amputee from the thigh down.

Even the most traumatic events can have a silver lining, for it is at the hospital that he meets Lola Shanks, prosthetist and future love interest. Lola gets Charlie outfitted with a top-of-the-line prosthetic leg, and helps him learn to walk again. Still, the engineer in Charlie can’t believe that this is as good as it gets. Once back at the lab, he starts tinkering. He can build a better leg—and then one better still. Soon, the new leg is so superior in all ways that Charlie realizes that there’s no reason to keep an inferior “meat” leg. A second “accident” occurs.

While Charlie is back in the hospital being ordered psyche evaluations, his employer is beginning to realize that Dr. Neumann is on to something, something potentially profitable. From there, the novel moves in a generally predictable direction, though with plenty of surprises along the way. Barry is not going for subtlety in his story-telling. The reengineered scientist is “Neumann,” the prosthetist is “Shanks,” and a corporate fixer who plays a prominent role is named “Cautery.” No, it’s not about subtlety. Barry takes his satire to extremes, and the novel that I found myself thinking of as I read it—the only book with a tone that reminded me of this one—was Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. I don’t believe that Machine Man is that classic’s equal, but like the earlier book, there is true perversion in the very premise of the novel.

In addition to the humor, one of the reasons I enjoy Max Barry’s work so much is the exploration of ideas. Lola asks, “Where does this end for you, Charlie? New legs. New arms. Just out of curiosity. When do you say, okay, now I’m happy?” And Charlie finds it an odd question because, “you didn’t stop improving things. Reaching a point where everything was as good as good as it could be, that would be terrible. You might as well die.”

Or later, one of Charlie’s enhanced lab assistants asks, “Do you remember when I asked you about ethics? You wanted to suppress your guilt and I said maybe we shouldn’t and you said there was no such thing as shouldn’t. Actually, you didn’t even understand the question. Well, I get that now. I totally get it. Because sometimes you feel a kind of biological revulsion against an idea, but it’s only because you’re not used to it, right? It’s just a matter of baselines… I mean, it’s not like there’s any fundamental integrity of emotions, am I right? Everything’s chemicals when you get down to it.”

Do these questions give you a chill, or is it just me? Because, the reality is that in a delightfully amusing way, Max Barry is posing questions that some scientist out there has asked—or soon will be.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Tortured English is more like it!

Pigeon English
by Stephen Kelman

While I can’t say that Stephen Kelman’s novel Pigeon English was a whole lot of fun to read, I don’t regret having made the effort. Elements of the novel can be challenging and/or tedious, but by the time you reach the end it packs a powerful punch.

The novel opens with a body on the ground, a murdered child, never identified beyond “dead boy.” It is being gazed upon by 11-year-old Harrison Opuku, our first-person narrator and torturer of the English language. Harri is a recent emigrant from Ghana. He’s come to the London with his mother and older sister, while his father saves money back home to bring over the rest of the family. And Harri seems to be adapting well. He’s made friends and, for better or worse, is adapting to the prevailing culture.

Harri and his best friend, Dean, decide they’re going to investigate dead boy’s murder. Dean’s seen many episodes of CSI, so he knows how it’s done. This “investigation” is a loose thread throughout the novel, which takes place over the course of several months. But mostly Pigeon English is the Harri show. And Harri is as sweet and endearing a character as I’ve read in quite some time. He’s smack in the middle of the London projects, stabbings and AIDS and junkies are a part of his daily reality, and yet, somehow, he is an innocent. And he is in peril. The seduction of the street gangs is just one of the many threats the adult reader sees looming over the young man. And it’s painful to read. Still, there is a lot of humor salted throughout the novel.

Another narrative element is Harri’s affection for a pigeon that flies into their flat one day. Harri explains, “I just wanted something that’s alive that I can feed and teach tricks to.” A pet pigeon isn’t in the cards, but Harri keeps an eye on him. The pigeon, it seems, keeps an eye on Harri as well. Throughout the novel are brief interludes from the pigeon’s point of view as he watches over Harri. These are some of the most beautiful passages. Ironically, the pigeon’s English is flawless.

As sweet, imaginative, and funny as Harri is, reading an entire novel in his voice is a challenge. For starters, he has a very limited vocabulary. Despite his assertion that in “England there’s a hell of different words for everything,” he tends to use the same handful. Some are recognizably English—though I’ve never seen anyone so often “vexed” as he is. Other words are more open to interpretation. I think the frequent exclamation “Asweh” is “I swear.” An angry person is “red-eyes.” “Bo-styles” means cool. A long time is “donkey hours.” A tricky person is a “confusionist.” And most mysterious of all was the word “hutious,” used in so many different contexts that I’m left to conclude that it bears a grammatical resemblance to “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”

Thankfully, this is a short novel, and the language can be dealt with. When I finally got to the end, I can’t honestly say that I didn’t see it coming. Still, it was a shock. Or perhaps the shock was just how much of an emotional wallop it packed. And ultimately, that’s why I rate this novel a success—because by the end, I cared deeply about this child.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Lucy Derrick is a bad judge of character

The Twelfth Enchantment
by David Liss

At the age of 20, Lucy Derrick is a sadder but wiser girl. The last few years have been terrible. When she was just 16, she made an error in judgment. She eloped very briefly with Mr. Jonas Morrison, but returned before anything untoward could happen between them. Unfortunately, her family suffered more than a scandal, because in the brief time that she was gone her beloved eldest sister died suddenly, followed a year later by her father. That left only Lucy and her older sister Martha, who sacrificed her own happiness to marry the male cousin who had inherited their home. But after the wedding, he turns Lucy out of the house. As the novel opens, she has been forced to accept the reluctant charity of a cold uncle and his abusive servant.

Does this sound more like a Jane Austen novel than your typical fantasy? It should. Novelist David Liss is well-known for intricately researched and plotted period thrillers. Here he turns his talents to something different from what we’ve seen in the past. Regency England is rendered in fine historical detail, and Lucy Derrick is the young woman that Austen’s disgraced Lydia Bennett might have matured into. But there is an even more direct link to the work of Jane Austen. One of The Twelfth Enchantment’s main characters is pulled straight from the pages of Mansfield Park.

Further, this is the first time that Mr. Liss has delved into the fantastic, and it doesn’t take long for things to get strange. Lucy is being forced into an unhappy marriage with a wealthy mill owner, Mr. Olsen. One evening a beautiful, disheveled stranger comes to her uncle’s door shouting Lucy’s name. As he collapses, he pronounces, “You must not marry him!” It quickly becomes apparent that something very extraordinary ails this man. He is cursed. So begins a new chapter in Lucy’s life. She discovers there is more to the world than she ever knew—and more to herself. Lucy is saucier, stronger, and far more talented than anyone suspected.

With the help of her new acquaintance, Mary Crawford, Lucy cures the stranger of his curse. It turns out that he is none other than Lord Byron, and he is not the only historical figure to play a role in the story. The novel has a lengthy set up. There is a large cast of characters; a time, place, and system of magic to be established; and in true Liss style, a larger socio-economic component to the tale. Liss’s characters don’t exist in a vacuum, and this was a pivotal period in British history, with industrialization taking a foothold and changing a way of life.

I can feel this review wanting to spiral out of control. I took a ridiculous number of notes and quotes as I read this novel because it is, in a word, substantive. There is a whole lot going on here, on so many levels! Janeite that I am, I absolutely LOVED the homage to her work. As you might suspect, there is a strong romantic component to this tale, and the dashing Lord Byron is only one of Lucy’s charismatic and inappropriate suitors. There is also a delightful vein of comedy balancing heavier elements of the story. As a fantasy fan, I enjoyed the system of magic and the quest that Liss constructed. It did add a little sumpin’ sumpin’ that Austen never had. And as a Liss fan, I appreciated the complexity and intelligence of the tale being told. I never feel that I have to work as I read his novels, but I will admit to hitting Wikipedia more than once to satisfy my own curiosity. I love that his novels awaken my curiosity!

More than anything, Mr. Liss is telling a good story. I joked above that Lucy Derrick is a bad judge of character. Well, so am I, because there were enough secrets, twists, reversals, betrayals, and shocking revelations to keep me constantly guessing and turning the pages late, late into the night. And when I reached the end in record time, I wasn’t disappointed in the slightest.

NOTE: For more info on The Twelfth Enchantment, please view a 10-minute interview with the author here.