Wednesday, August 31, 2011

'The Memory Palace'

I thought that nothing in the way of memoirs could match 'The Glass Castle'.  Jeanette Wall's spectacular life story left me amused but, most importantly, angry.  

And then 'The Memory Palace' arrived on my doorstep.  Although I found myself growing more and more upset while reading it, it ultimately reinforced my compassion for the author and her family.    

Mira Bartok has crafted a sensitive, artful depiction of life with a parent who suffered from schizophrenia, and later, cancer.  Although Mira and her sister abandoned their mother because they could no longer cope with her condition, they returned to her side when they learned she was dying of cancer.  Mira, herself, suffers from a brain injury sustained from a traumatic car accident, and as her story progresses, she searches for her mother and finds her living in a homeless shelter.  Finding herself walking in her mother's shoes, so to speak, she could relate to the mental horror her mother lived through each and every day.

This is a sensitive and extraordinary story, and the artwork contained within is greatly representative of the author's experiences.  'The Memory Palace' will promote great discussions among book club members, and will stay in your mind for a long time.  

Sunday, August 28, 2011


A few years ago, I watched the movie, 'Tombstone' and was taken with Val Kilmer's interpretation of Doc Holliday.  He perfectly captured the essence of this tuberculosis-ridden card-shark dentist.  Even now I ask friends if they'd like to be 'my huckleberry'.

When I first heard about Mary Doria Russell's new novel, 'Doc', I just knew that I had to read it. I've been a fan of her sci-fi novels; 'The Sparrow' is brilliant, eerie, and strange; I wondered how 'Doc' fit into her basket.  But when I learned about her upbringing and the fact that her father was a five-term sheriff of DuPage County, Illinois, my feelings were put to rest.  She would certainly be suited to write a novel about the legendary gunman/gambler/dentist.  Her research is impeccable; she knows her subject and the areas in which he lived. 

I dived into the story and didn't come up for air.

Russell brings to life a man who came to fame via his involvement in the Gunfight at O.K. Corral (cue the 'Dun-dun-DUN').  But Doc is so much more than that.  A classically-educated child born in the South with a fiercely devoted mother, and a sufferer of tuberculosis almost his entire life, Holliday moves to the dry West in order to alleviate the symptoms of his illness.  He takes up with a prostitute, Maria Katarina Harony, who knows her way around the card tables and can quote Latin classics as well as him.  It is in Dodge City where Doc meets Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson.  It is life before the fame and notoriety, before their inclusion in Western mythology.

This book, however, is Doc's story.  His beginnings, his heartbreaks, his illness.  It is written with great compassion and humor and should be considered one of Russell's finest novels.

I will gently set this wonderful novel on my bookshelf next to Russell's other books.  And I will most certainly count on reading it again.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Northwest Angle

I am always in the mood for a good mystery.  There's nothing better than trying to guess the outcome.  But I've noticed that a few mysteries tend to fall flat.  I'm left feeling dissatisfied; almost cheated for all my effort.

But along comes 'Northwest Angle', by William Kent Krueger.  The man certainly has a way with words.  He brings to life a people and place that instill a desire to belong.  His description of the NW Angle is breathtaking, yet at the same time, slightly forbidding.   

Cork O'Connor (the protagonist from Krueger's other excellent mysteries) is on a vacation with his family on the NW Angle in Minnesota.  He decides to take his daughter, Jenny, to an island on the Lake of the Woods, but before they arrive at their destination, a derecho, a powerful, sudden storm, catches them offguard and they are stranded on one of the many islands.  While looking for shelter, they find a trapper's cabin, where they soon discover the body of a teenage girl.  She hadn't been killed by the storm; she was tortured and murdered.  After hearing whimpering sounds outside the cabin, Jenny discovers a baby boy, alive and hungry, hidden under fallen branches.  The discovery sets into motion the hunt for a vicious killer intent on finding the baby.

Interwoven in the story are ruminations on faith, love, loyalty, and family.  Every emotion experienced by the characters rang true to this reader.  

'Northwest Angle', a mystery full of many surprises, has earned it's plaudits...and I'm adding one more.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Good Reads for Summer Part 2

I'm in the midst of reading a great mystery, but it's too soon to review it.  Believe me, it's a good one.

In the meantime, here are some more great Summer reads collected from my bookshelf...

1.  The Alienist, by Caleb Carr.  If you love Sherlock Holmes (or any Victorian-type mystery, for that matter), read 'The Alienist'.  Although it's set in 1896, Caleb Carr has given his story a very Sherlockian flavor.  In New York City, Theodore Roosevelt is the police commissioner and he is in a hurry to solve a horrible mystery.  He hires an old college friend, Dr. Lazlo Kreizler, to form a group capable of finding the city's first serial killer.  Kreizler is a psychiatrist, or rather an 'alienist', as he ministers to those with mental pathologies, those who are alienated from society.  With a secretary (who aspires to become a policewoman), young male servant, and newspaper reporter in tow, Dr. Kreizler sets out to find the elusive killer in the most logical way possible.  This is a harrowing story and not for the faint-of-heart.  Carr's follow-up, 'Angel of Darkness', is just so-so, but it still retains the same cast of characters.

2.  The Passage, by Justin Cronin.  I consider 'The Stand' to be Stephen King's masterpiece, and no other post-apocalyptic novel has really matched it...until now.  'The Passage' is at once a story mirroring the present era's sense of fatalism, and also what happens when we let the military retain it's secrets.  The story begins in present time, and a little girl, Amy, is abandoned by her mother and left to the care of nuns.  A secret experiment involving death-row inmates will have a tremendous impact on Amy's young life.  A girl with secrets and a power beyond all comprehension drives the story into the second act, which takes place one hundred years later.  It is a novel of survival, of love, of selflessness.  Although the 'bad guys' do horrible things, you cannot help but feel pity, and even love, for them.  Don't despair if you feel that the story is too 'big'; give it time.  It will grow on you.

3.  Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman.  This is the first Neil Gaiman story I read, and I was instantly hooked.  Shortly thereafter, I read 'Bad Omens' (cowritten with Terry Pratchett), and his short-story collections.  After reading his Newberry award winner, 'The Graveyard Book', I had to go back to the beginning and reread 'Neverwhere'.  One thing I have to say about this is DO NOT watch the televised version from Great Britain!  I am waiting for the day that this strange, scary, and wonderful story will appear on screen in it's full glory...and with an unlimited budget for special effects (If you are a Doctor Who fan, I hope you watched Neil's TARDIS episode; this is Gaiman at his best, demonstrating his remarkable talent with sensitivity, verve, quirkiness, and much love thrown into the pot).  The core of 'Neverwhere' takes place in under-underground London.  Richard Mayhew leads the perfect life; perfect job, perfect fiancee.  But underneath it all, he is not entirely content.  Along comes Door, an injured young woman he finds on the street, the catalyst who sets Richard on a new life path.  This story is brim-full of mythology, good vs. evil, name it, it's in here.  'Neverwhere' is a joy, and I read it every year.

4.  The Alchemist, by Pablo Coelho.  Beautifully written story which teaches a simple lesson:  When you're searching for your heart's desire, take a look in your own backyard.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Birdie Has Flown

Forgive me, if you will, for allowing me to veer away from book reviews for just a moment.  Something major has occurred in my life and I feel the need to address the situation. 

My bird has flown from the nest, and although I thought I could handle it, I now realize that I'm not as strong as I thought.

My daughter will be 25 in December; a sobering thought in my eyes.  But no matter how hard I try to reconcile myself to her adulthood, memories of her as a baby, as a toddler, as a horrible teenager surface on a constant basis.  I cannot look at photographs without crying.  

Yes, I realize that it's her 'time' to explore the world (I, myself, did all the exploring that I could manage when I was her age), but this whole experience brings one thought to mind:  I now know how my parents felt.  I can feel the anguish and separation anxiety.  Although we argued on a weekly basis, I will miss her snide comments and rude remarks.  I will miss her sarcasm.  I will especially miss hearing her grunts of frustration when I remind her not to text and drive.  A St. Christopher medal and a stack of books will be in her birthday package.

But I also know that my birdie will be just fine.  She's a strong woman, yet I'm thankful she has managed to hang onto her sensitivity.

Here's to my birdie!  You might have flown from the nest, but this mom will keep an eagle eye on you.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Good Reads for Summer...and Beyond

I've reached the point where I have no new books to recommend to reading groups.  I'm on several waiting lists at the library, so until then, I'm wandering through my bookcases.

And here is what I've found, treasures all!

1.  'Gospel' by Wilton Barnhardt.  I read this book every year, and because it's so packed with all kinds of 'goodies', I always find something new.  The major protagonists are on the search for a lost gospel and they travel the world to find it.  The characters are so well drawn that you will fall in love with them.  Redemption, regret, surprises, and the 'you can't go home again' theme flavor this most satisfying read.  Mr. Barnhardt has filled his story with a great deal of humor and introspection.

2.  'Heartsick', 'Sweetheart', et al by Chelsea Cain.  Chelsea is a Portland writer, and her 'Gretchen and Archie' series is set in the city I love so much.  She captures, with great genius, the weird relationship between a cool blonde serial killer and the detective who captured her.  Add to this delicious mix an intrepid female reporter and you have a series of books you will not put down.  

3.  'Dog On It', et al by Spencer Quinn.  This series is a must-read!  If you're looking for something light, entertaining, and amusing, Spencer's 'Chet and Bernie' books are a perfect fit.  After reading the first book, 'Dog On It', I became an avid fan.  Bernie is a down-on-his luck private eye, and Chet is his partner and best friend.  The wonderful twist is that Chet is a dog, and he narrates the entire series.  The love and loyalty both characters share is at the heart of these stories, and the doggy humor is spot on (pun intended).  Chet is so popular now that he has his very own Facebook page.  Check it out and perhaps you'll post a picture of your own best friend.

4.  'Harry Potter' series, by J.K. Rowling.  When I was working at a B. Dalton store several years ago, many children would ask me if we had the Harry Potter book.  Curiosity soon got the better of me, and I decided to see what all the fuss was about among the younger set.  I was up until 3am reading it, and made the very smart decision to buy it the next day.  Shortly thereafter, the second book in the series made it into our store, and I promptly bought it.  I now have the entire series, and I read them every year.  J.K. Rowling has reignited our desire for a well-told story...and brought childhood back to jaded adults.  Although the movies are great, read the books, too.  Maybe they will make you wish that Hogwarts was real.

5.  'Roma' by Steven Saylor  I love historical fiction, especially if the author has done his/her research.  One of my favorite eras is ancient Rome, and the only book I've found that has captured my interest of that historical time is 'I, Claudius' by Robert Graves.  I was rather apprehensive when I first picked up a copy of 'Roma', but after reading the first chapter, I was instantly immersed in the story.  It begins with the beginning, when Rome was merely a gritty, swamp-filled trade route.  Each chapter portrays the growth of the city seen through the eyes of a patrician family.  No biography of Rome is complete without the story of Romulus and Remus, and Mr. Saylor writes about them in a very interesting way.  

I hope that you give these books a try.  You just might find a new favorite.


Wednesday, August 10, 2011

'Strangers at the Feast'

If you're like me, the last thing you want to read is a novel about the mortgage/building crisis.  One more hank of hair torn from your head, a few more tears shed. 

But 'Strangers at the Feast', written by Jennifer Vanderbes, demanded my attention.

It is not a diatribe against the greed of banks and Wall Street.  No, no.  It is much more than that. It exposes secrets and lies, privilege and poverty.  

The story takes place during Thanksgiving of 2007, when the U.S. was at the brink of recession.  Meet the Olson family:  Father, Gavin, a Vietnam war vet hiding behind a wall of silence.  Mother, Eleanor, a person who, although raised in the '60's, reminded me of a woman with the mindset of a 1950's housewife.  And there is their daughter, Ginny, a brilliant academic and the single mother of an adopted East Indian girl.  Here is Douglas, an ambitious real estate developer with a selfish agenda.  His wife, Denise, is stern and somewhat unyielding, loving the good life, yet wary, nonetheless.

They all have secrets which are exposed when they confront Spider and Kijo, two black boys who live in a housing project.  That tragic meeting will change all of their lives.

As Justin Cronin wrote, "Gorgeously written and uncompromising in its vision, Strangers at the Feast is more than a great novel.  It's an important one."

I heartily agree.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

I'm Sorry, But 'Sorry' Isn't Good Enough

You'd think that I would gush tears and smile warmly at everyone who expresses sympathy because our local Borders store will soon be gone.  

I realize that the friends and neighbors who frequent our bookstore are upset because their usual 'hangout' will cease to exist.  And I feel bad for those families who will miss our children's storytime.  Those are the people who come in and actually BUY books.  Those are the people who do not sit in the café and read books and magazines and leave piles of them all over the place.  Those are the people who don't come in just because we have free WiFi.  Those are the people who don't let their children run wild in the Kid's section.  They respect the store and the employees and prove it every time they visit.  They are our 'real' customers.  They are the ones who see my tears and receive my hugs.

I'm affected by those who say "I'm sorry" and don't really mean it.  Those are the people who rarely come in, and when they do, they take pictures of books via their phones, and then go to the café and order those books on  Those are the people who look the other way when their children destroy books and toys.  Those are the people who constantly haggle for a better discount.

Their false sympathy tends to leave a bitter taste in my mouth.

I will miss our cherished customers, many of whom are now our friends.  One of the nicest compliments I received from one of them was, "Please let me know when you'll be working in another bookstore.  I really rely on your recommendations!"  

That customer buys 'real' books, which does my heart proud.  Of course I'll keep in touch with her.  She and I both realize that we all need to keep brick-and-mortar bookstores in business.

The citizens of this country need jobs, and when you actually buy something from a 'real' store, you are contributing to someone's paycheck.  You are helping that person pay for groceries, 
rent/mortgage, utilities...everything.  

Believe me when I say that the job you save might be your own.

Friday, August 5, 2011

The Hundred-Foot Journey

When I was a regular bookseller for Borders Books, the publishing house, Simon & Schuster, sent informational e-mails to all Borders sellers.  It was a dynamic resource and a wonderful place to read about new publications.  Not only did I receive valuable news, but advanced reading copies (ARCs) were available to me.  At first, I only requested a few copies, which I would read and review.  But when the Summer and Autumn lists came out, my 'book hog' instinct took flight and my list grew.  The fabulous folks at S&S not only filled my requests, but added one or two 'staff picks' to my shipment.

What a delight it was to come home after a hard day of work and find that precious box of books waiting for me!  I dropped whatever I was holding and tore into the box.  It was pure heaven for this book hog.

But when Borders went out of business, I sent off goodbye notes to everyone with whom I had contact at Simon & Schuster.  I did not expect the content of their replies.  It turned out that it wasn't 'goodbye' to our partnership.  I was invited to join their Bookclub Advisory panel, and I immediately replied, "Yes, yes, YES!"  I now read two or three books a month and review them.  Plain and simple, right?  'This is a good book.  I recommend it'.  For me, it's much more than that.  Being a seasoned bookseller, I take this task very seriously.

So, onto my first review, and I promise this book is well worth your time.  You will come to cherish it.  I have.

"The Hundred-Foot Journey", written by Richard C. Morais, first captured me by it's exquisite writing.  Mr. Morais words settle gently on the brain and evoke moments in which we could all participate.  This is a story written with great care and abundant love.

Hassan Haji is a young Indian boy who was raised in his family's restaurant business in Mumbai.  After a family tragedy, his entire family leaves India to roam Europe, eventually settling in Lumiere, a small town in the French Alps.  When they open an Indian restaurant, they find that their neighbor, an acclaimed French chef, is none too pleased.  The moment their business takes off, they have earned the ire of Madame Mallory.

But life takes funny twists and turns, and it is Madame Mallory who discovers Hassan's genius and sets him on the path to his own culinary fame.

This is a story to relish, one that you will read again and again.  And, hopefully, one you will share.

I have.

Books 'r Us

'Classic.' A book which people praise and don't read.
Mark Twain 

One of my many pleasures is to wander through the bookshelves in my home.  "What shall I read today?  This new one?  Or perhaps a past love?"

Nine times out of ten, I choose a past love.  I have particular favorites, ones I read every year.  Jasper Fforde's 'Thursday Next' series is fantastic when I'm in the mood for a bit of silliness.  'Gospel' by Wilton Barnhardt is another favorite, one I wish more people would read when they have a need for throught-provoking prose and, yes, laughter.  

With this blog, I will recommend books that I have always loved, and even some new ones that reading groups would enjoy.  

I have worked in the book trade for 25+ years, and my most favorite aspect of the job has always been one-on-one recommending.  If I love a good story, I will recommend it.  If I have had a 'so-so' experience with a book, I will recommend it with reservations.  Here's my best advice:  When a bookseller puts a book into your hands, take it, go sit down, and start reading the first chapter.  If it captures your interest, it's the book for you.  However, not all books will do that.  When I first started reading 'Girl with the Dragon Tattoo', I put it down numerous times.  But because I was warned about the huge backstory, I remained faithful to the story and once I hit a certain point, the story took off.  I've been a fan of that series ever since.

So, trust your bookseller.  Talk to one in person.  Explore the stacks and ask for help when you need it.  Don't be shy.  We are here for you, as you are here for us.

One last word:  Visit your local bookstore and library.  Give them your business.  Our cities and towns are in dire need of such places.  We, the reading public, need to reconnect and step away from computers for just a few satisfying moments and get in touch with real books.