Wednesday, July 31, 2013

'The Rosie Project'

If I'm not working that evening, you'll find me in front of my television on Thursdays, watching 'The Big Bang Theory'.  I don't care if it's a rerun; I'll watch it and laugh while tapping into my 'inner nerd'.  Sheldon Cooper (one of the major characters in the program and played by the brilliant Jim Parsons), on the other hand, is more of a geek.  Brilliant in most areas of science (and a trivia expert), he cannot cope in social situations, and suffers (although not in his opinion) from OCD. He knows everything and isn't afraid to let everyone know it.  

So, when the new novel, 'The Rosie Project' landed on my desk, I almost thought that Sheldon had written it.  Almost...

Brilliant, funny (oh, it's definitely funny!), and a nod to those who aren't afraid to change, Graeme Simsion's new novel is destined to hit the bestseller lists.  His story is one of the most romantic and hilarious books of the Fall publishing season.

Don Tillman is a professor of genetics, and although he has a brilliant scientific mind (with huge OCD tendencies), he finds social situations uncomfortable and confounding.  His luck with women ended at one date, so he embarks upon the Wife Project.  The Wife Project is a sixteen-page questionnaire which he sends to assorted women (thanks to the help of his best friend, Gene, who, although married, enjoys the 'company' of many, many women) in hopes of finding his perfect mate.

And in walks Rosie, the most illogical and beautiful woman he has ever met.  Brilliant in her own right, Rosie and Don establish a tentative friendship, and in doing so, embark upon yet another endeavor, The Father Project (Rosie wants to find out who her biological father really is).  Setting The Wife Project aside, Don reorganizes his life in order to help Rosie. But what he doesn't foresee is the path he will take to find himself...and love.

Of all the beautifully-realized characters in this book, I fell in love with Don. Fastidious, unintentionally funny, and stuck in his own little world, he projects a courage that I did not expect.  Watching his relationship with Rosie grow into 'something more' made my heart swell.

So, read 'The Rosie Project' before it becomes a movie.  Grasp Don's hand and give it a good shake before he can take it back.  

Sheldon would be horrified.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

'The Ocean at the End of the Lane'

Have you ever read a book that made you feel like a little kid?  A book so powerful in its simplicity that you are left breathless?  A book that, at first, reads like an innocent fairy tale but soon reveals a surprising mythology?

A book you'll remember always.  A book written by a master, a title rightly earned.

It was almost impossible for me to set aside 'The Ocean at the End of the Lane'.  Neil Gaiman is on my Top 10 list of favorite authors ('Neverwhere' is my particular favorite of all his works), and I've never been steered wrong.  I read his newest story at night, while in bed, feeling every emotion experienced by the narrator, a middle-aged man remembering a trying, emotional, scary time when he was 7 years-old.

When he takes us back to his seventh year, it begins with his birthday party, a party that no one attended, except for his immediate family.  And then he receives, and falls in love with, a little black kitten he names 'Fluffy'.  He is a quiet boy, without friends, and recedes into the comfort of books.

But when an opal miner arrives to board in their home, the tale turns dark and it is then when our young narrator meets Lettie Hempstock, a young girl who lives in a farmhouse at the end of the lane.  She shares the home with her grandmother and mother, two warm, welcoming women.  Powerful women.  

Near their farmhouse is a pond, which Lettie claims is the ocean over which they sailed from the 'old country'.  As their friendship becomes stronger, Lettie vows to protect her young friend.  From what, he wonders, and that 'what' is strange and evil, and determined to take away everyone he holds dear, including his own life and the world around him.

It's a small book; almost 180 pages; but it stays with you.  It reads like a fairy tale, but adult situations abound.  Remember, this is the first adult novel Gaiman's written in a long time.  

It contains his usual theme of innocence gone dark, but with that darkness comes light...and this light is astounding.

Welcome back, Mr. Gaiman.  This one was worth waiting for.

'The Ocean at the End of the Lane' is now available at your local independent bookstore and library.

Monday, July 22, 2013

'The Sound and the Furry'

Summer continues in the most brilliant way here in the Pacific Northwest.  We haven't had rain for quite a while, and while I enjoy the sunny days, I consider this one a nuisance.  I have the flu, and no amount of air conditioning is going to make me feel better.

I have stayed in my pajamas all day while I consume massive quantities of ginger ale and toast.  Children's screams of joy and activity from the nearby swimming pool have been barely tolerated.  In fact, it's been keeping me from proper rest.  I could easily stand on my balcony and tell everyone to shut up, but that wouldn't be neighborly, would it?

So, I read.  Stacks of new advance reading copies sit on a table near the sofa, and while they all look wonderful, I have chosen the one that I've been eagerly waiting for.

Locked away from the outside world, I opened Spencer Quinn's new book, 'The Sound and the Furry' and immediately fell into Chet and Bernie's newest adventure.

Chet the dog is the narrator once again, and a better one you'll never find (I still swear that Mr. Quinn is part dog).  Full of love and friendship, with a dollop of worry, this continuation of the story of the two private eyes is a welcome addition to this hilarious series.

While out on a drive, Chet and Bernie come upon a prison work crew and find Frenchie Boutette, a man they helped send to jail.  Frenchie asks Bernie and Chet for help in finding his missing brother, Ralph, somewhere in New Orleans.  But before they can leave, they are attacked by a gang called the Quieros.  Although Bernie has been offered another job in Alaska (with a bigger payday), he decides to help Frenchie, instead.  The Boutette family has a long-running feud with the Robideau family, and at first, Bernie thinks the Robideau's had something to do with Ralph's disappearance due to a dispute over a missing load of shrimp.  But when Bernie discovers a hidden clue, the search takes a dangerous turn.  Soon, the duo is fighting Big Oil, black ops, the Quieros, and Iko the vicious alligator.

The 'Chet and Bernie' series is interesting, but it is Chet's narrative voice that drives this series well above others.  His voice, while pure canine, is full of devotion, love, pride, and furry excitement.  Chet is weak when food is involved; no matter how attentive to duty he tries to be, a Slim Jim can drive him to distraction.

So, if you're suffering from a cold or the flu during this incredible heat wave the whole U.S. seems to be experiencing, take a load off and begin reading this wonderful mystery series. You'll get some good laughs, you'll cry a few tears (the tear-inducing moment in this new story is especially tissue-worthy), and you'll celebrate the love and friendship shared by two very interesting private investigators.

As for me, it made me feel quite a bit better.

Laughter, it seems, is the best medicine.

'The Sound and the Furry' will be released in early September 2013 by Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

'The Mouse-Proof Kitchen'

I have been working for a non-profit thrift store for over a year now, and it is one of the most satisfying and interesting jobs I've ever held.  Our non-profit offers programs to veterans, the elderly, at-risk youth, and those facing addictions.  I come into contact with many people from various walks of life; those who have money to spend from having jobs that pay them well, elderly folks, and disabled people.  It is a distinct pleasure to serve them.

It is the disabled people who have taught me patience and compassion.  When you look beyond the wheelchair and canes and (sometimes) vacant stares, you find a breathing human being inside, one who has a brilliant sense of humor.  I'm especially drawn to a young woman who practices sarcasm every day, and it is a joy to see her in our store.  Our exchanges are quiet and quick, and when she and her caregiver are waiting at the counter when a huffy, privileged person is complaining about some little thing, I can feel the sarcasm just waiting to burst out of the young woman's mouth.  So I wink at her and she smiles.  When the privileged woman looks behind her and sees the wheelchair-bound girl, she dares not give off a look of horror (which I know she would have done if I hadn't been standing there). She dramatically sweeps down and pats the girl's hand, as if she's done a service to all those who are disabled.  "You poor thing," she says.  It's everything I can do to keep my mouth shut.

'The Mouse-Proof Kitchen', written by Saira Shah, doesn't really address the same issue. The child, Freya, isn't treated with sad smiles and pats on the hand.  She is instantly accepted and cared for.  She is the catalyst of the story, and a more precious one could not be imagined.

Anna and Tobias, a young couple living in London, are expecting the birth of a perfect child, and then a move to a perfect life in Provence, France.  But life doesn't work out exactly the way they planned.  Freya, their daughter, is born physically disabled, and will require constant care for the rest of her life.  The family ends up buying a worn down, rodent-infested farmhouse, which is soon a magnet for their strange, lonely neighbors. Confronted by such ill luck, fortune, in many guises, teaches them compassion, love, and forgiveness.  

Of all the characters, I found Tobias to be the most selfish.  A brilliant musician relying on freelance jobs, he keeps himself away from his daughter, because if he gets too close, he'll fall in love with her.  He tells Anna to keep something back, because when they are no longer able to take care of Freya, their grief will be horrible.  That I can understand.  But when he finally makes a solid connection with their daughter, he's still selfish and inconsiderate.  

Anna, however, bonds with Freya immediately.  She is the one who takes care of her, although there are times when she just wants to run away.  But that bond brings her closer to her own mother, a woman who, in subtle nagging ways, wants to keep the bond alive.

Shah's characters are finely drawn, and their quirks and mannerisms bring a certain sparkle to the story.  But the character that really drew me in was the fragile Freya.  She reminded me of the many disabled people I help every day.

Humor, compassion and immediate acceptance give 'The Mouse-Proof Kitchen' its energy.

And, I have to admit, even the selfishness of some of the characters give it the intensity it requires.

'The Mouse-Proof Kitchen', published by Atria (a division of Simon & Schuster) is available at your local bookstore and library.  

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

'Shoot the Dog'

The Pacific Northwest has been experiencing the hottest Summer in years.  I've been taking short hikes, and sitting in parks, doing all the Summery things that people are wont to do.

Although it's considered more of an cold weather past time, I've been doing a lot of reading as I cool off in the shade of my favorite tree.  When I look around, I've noticed that other people are reading, too.  Some are using e-readers, but most have their noses in real books.  With the steady decline of independent bookstores in my region, I've lost a bit of faith in the continued production of print books.  But then reality hits me in the head and I know, I just know that real books will always be alive-and-well...and will be very collectible (as in 'worth money') in the near future.  Part of my job is listing things on ebay, and my jaw drops when I research the value of some vintage books.  Even newer books are climbing the collectible ladder.  Hope springs.

But I digress.  

I have just finished a good mystery novel, 'Shoot the Dog', written by Brad Smith, and the third book in his series about Virgil Caine, former baseball player and murder suspect.

When I first read that character's name, I thought of Joan Baez's famous song.  But that was quickly forgotten once I got into the story.  It's a quick read, but very memorable.  There is a strong sense of place in Smith's story.  A farmer living in upstate New York, Virgil is no 'country bumpkin'; he's sharp, quiet, and intelligent, a man with a history and a sense of who he is.  

Virgil Cain and his draft horses are busy pulling a hay wagon when two film scouts show up and offer him $500 a day for their use in a film.  Needing the money for taxes, Virgil reluctantly agrees, but finds the chaotic set of Frontier Woman a very uncomfortable place to be.  But when the body of the film's leading lady is found dead, Virgil steps in before the ten year-old co-star ends up the next victim.

The interesting characters with over-inflated egos are the comic relief of this story; Sam, the harried film producer, and Robb, her clueless director husband, and Ronnie Red Hawk, a Native American casino owner who not only has a financial interest in the film, but also in the new leading lady.

But you will remember Virgil Caine.  His quiet attitude, his happiness with the simple country life.  His knowledge of film, and his passion for Claire, a police detective.

A man this little Book Hog fell in love with.

'Shoot the Dog' by Brad Smith will be available on July 16, 2013 from Scribner.  It is the third in the 'Virgil Cain' series.  


Saturday, July 6, 2013

'Reconstructing Amelia'

I think one of the hardest things in life is losing your child.  And I'm not talking about breaks in the relationship, when you don't talk to each other for a long, long time.  In that case, you know your child is around, but there (hopefully) will come a day when you will reconcile.

When I mean losing a child, I mean death.  Heartbreaking, grief-filled, I-can't-breathe death.

It's beyond me.  And I don't want to even imagine it.

But Kimberly McCreight's brilliant debut novel, 'Reconstructing Amelia' will hit a little too close to home to anyone who has a teenager.  

Beautifully written, sensitive, and almost jaw-dropping, I found myself immersed in Kate Baron's sorrow.  If your child has ever wanted to belong to a peer group, you'll totally understand Kimberly's story.  

Although it is labelled a 'mystery', the story goes much deeper.  It goes beyond a search for the truth.  It delves into a mother's guilt and a daughter's trust in those who would do her harm.

Kate Baron is a partner in one of New York's most prestigious law firms, and although she is a single mother to a brilliant young girl, she feels guilty that her work life isn't giving her more time to spend with her daughter, Amelia.  But when she receives news that Amelia has committed suicide at her exclusive private school, Grace Hall, Kate does not believe that her daughter would do such a thing.  Consumed by grief and guilt, Kate dives into her daughter's text messages and Facebook posts, trying to find out why Amelia would end her life when it was filled with such promise.  When Kate receives the text message, 'Amelia didn't jump', she knows in her heart that Amelia did not commit suicide.  During her search, she discovers secrets that Amelia kept from her...and that leads to a startling discovery.

I could not put down Kimberly's amazing novel.  A real 'page turner', it will bring tears to your eyes, and perhaps, put you on the path to having a real conversation with your own child.

And, maybe, keeping them out of private school.

Help keep independent bookstores alive!  'Reconstructing Amelia' is available at your favorite store...and your local library!

Monday, July 1, 2013

'Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures'

When I was about eleven years old, I found my 'bliss'.  I was sitting on the floor in front of the television, when my father turned the station to Oregon Public Broadcasting.  There before me was pure magic: a grainy, jerky, black and white film without a voice, people wearing white makeup, a story so soaked in innocence that I was stunned.  I think it starred Mary Pickford, the queen of the screen.  In that moment, I fell in love with silent films and I've been in love with them ever since.  So much, in fact, that I learned everything I could about them; the cast, the crew, the director, the writers.  The whole darn history.  And even though I'm older now, I'm not so jaded; I look forward to 'Silent Sunday' on Turner Classic Movies every single week.

I was lucky that most of those silent stars were still alive when I was a young girl.  They were writing autobiographies (which I lapped up), they were guests on game shows, they were making comebacks in some of the weirdest movies I've ever seen, except for 'Sunset Boulevard'; pure brilliance!  I stayed up late just to watch Charlie Chaplin receive an honorary Oscar.  I loved them.  And I love them, still.  And my favorite silent film star?  Rudolph Valentino (you can stop laughing now).  When the silent film, 'The Artist', won a Best Picture Oscar a year ago, I whooped with joy and spilled popcorn all over the floor.

Any novel pertaining to the silent era immediately grabs my attention.  Clive Barker wrote 'Coldheart Canyon', a bizarre novel about a Hollywood mansion haunted by the ghosts of silent stars; I loved it.  Thomas Tryon's two Hollywood novels, 'Crowned Heads' and 'All That Glitters' have a place of honor on my bookshelf.  

But then we have novels about the 'Golden Age' of Hollywood that really don't quite ring true.  And so it is with 'Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures' by Emma Straub.  

I found it hard to stay with the story.  I expected more from it, but it just didn't deliver on its early promise.

Elsa Emerson, the youngest of three sisters, is born in Door County, Wisconsin, where her father and mother run a Summer stock theater.  There, Elsa learns the fine art of acting while earning her father's approval.  But when tragedy strikes, acting takes center stage in Elsa's life.  While still a teen, Elsa marries another actor, and they move to Los Angeles.  She becomes a star, while his once-promising career collapses.  After Elsa falls in love with a powerful film executive, they marry, she changes her name and hair color, and shoots to stardom under the careful watch of her new husband.  But one can only stay on top for so long, and Laura finds herself adrift in a sea of troubles.  Her downward spiral almost lands her in a mental hospital, until she finds the courage and strength to remember who she really was:  Just a simple girl from Wisconsin.

Although the story centers around Elsa/Laura, I really wanted to learn more about the era in which she lived; the industry scandals and gossip, the private lives of famous actors and actresses.  But it was all Elsa/Laura...and boringly so.  The story never really 'took off' for me, and, try as I might, I just couldn't get very enthused about it.  There was no color, no excitement.  All interior, centered around one character.  It just went on and on, with no clear direction.

I sincerely hope that Straub's next book is a bit more exciting.