Books 39 - 42

39. Death of an Ordinary Man by Glen Duncan - A dead man observes his family at his own funeral and wake, looking for clues as to why he died. His recently departed stature gives him the ability to see but not be seen, as well as to hear some of the thoughts of his family. Their grief triggers memories of another death in the family, one that no one dealt with nearly as well they seem to be handling his passing. The presence of two people he doesn't recognize is what troubles him most, and until he finds the connection, he can't let himself move on. In a less brave author's hands, this story would have been turned into a predicatable story of bad things happening to good people. But Duncan isn't afraid to twist the story, to veer off just when you think you see the path he is following. He's an author who creates characters strong enough to tell their own story.

40. Fielding Gray by Simon Raven - Set in 1945, this is a story of what happens when the acceptaed school boy flirtations and crushes develop int0 something stronger and less accepted. **, an upper level student at an all boy school, is attracted to a younger student. He pursues him, seduces him, but isn't ready when the younger boy wants to continue the relationship over the term break. An unhappy home life convinces ** that is is good to be wanted, despite warnings from other classmates that he's wrong to encourage the younger student. By the time he's ready to face the younger boy, something he feels responsible for setting in motion had gone horribly wrong. A very fast read, sad but honest.

41. The Outcast by Sadie Jones - If Ian McEwen had ever been a sixteen year old girl, this is the book he would have written. A young boy loses his mother, and no one around him has the tools or the heart to help him recover. Instead, they all have their own levels of disfunction to travel through - all except one, who fanfic readers will recognize as a Mary Sue of the highest calibre. That's not to say this isn't a good read, if you enjoy a pretty good gothic mixed with a heavy dose of romantic idealism. My complaint is that Jones paints her characters in such obvious broad strokes that you know what they're going to do pages before they do it. Also, there's a gender bias so broad (women = silently suffering victims, men = brutes that can't help themselves), it might have worked for a story set in the 1850's, but not the 1950's, The author is capable of letting characters reveal their flaws through subtle actions, there are some very moving passages of this book that prove it. It's when the story is dragged back onto a "love conqueres all" path that it becomes difficult to read.

42. The Birth House by Ami McKay - l checked this historical fiction out at the library after having a "Well, I've never read a book about that place or topic!" reaction to the cover flap, and I'm very glad I did. Set in Nova Scotia shortly before WWI, this is the life story of a young woman, the only girl in a large family of boys, who learns the art of midwifery, at first out of lack of any other future, but later out of love and respect for the other women in her town. This was the point in time when medical science had discovered how to turn child birth into a medical procedure instead of a natural event, and our protaganist runs head on into a doctor who is all about business and nothing about health or well being. There's a lot of interesting homepathic history in this book, as the village midwife dealt with all parts of women's health, from infertility to after-the-fact birth control. There are plenty of multi-layered characters in the book, and every one of the main ones has a complete and believable arc, something that few historical fictions accomplish.


Books 36 - 38

36. The Other by David Guterson - I had to remind myself over and over that this is a novel and not a work of non-fiction, not only because the characters are so well drawn and the plot an incredible natural arch of humanity, but because I wanted to believe that what happened to our narrator, Neil Countryman and his friend John William Barry really happened. This is a story of paths taken and not taken, the tenacity of a friendship that could have expired many, many times, and in no small part a sort of Into The Wild with less rebellion and more dialog. This book also succeeds in telling us how it all ends from the very beginning, but that doesn't stop you from wanting to see the journey unfold.

37. The Virgin of the Small Plains by Nancy Pickard - A young woman is found naked, bloodied and dead in a Kansas pasture by the local sheriff and his sons. Secret and lies follow until 17 years later when a now grown up resident of the town starts asking questions. The characters in this book are drawn with more detail than your average mystery, and thats a plus as well as a minus. More depth means it is easier to identify with all of the characters as the narrative cuts from before the discovery of the body to the lives of all those affected by that discovery. However, more depth points a big ol' neon arrow at the killer, in my opinion. There's an interesting side story of how the dead girl, now called "The Virgin" earns status as a implement of miracles, especially when a tornado passes through the town of Small Plains. To really like this story, you're going to have to practice some suspension of disbelief when it comes to murder investigations in rural Kansas, but if you can do that, this is a not too taxing look at the havoc people can cause in the name of good.

38. I, Lucifer by Glen Duncan - Very funny, very intelligent and very original! The tag-line for this book (when did books start having tag-lines, anyway?) is "Finally, the other side of the story." and that is exactly what we get. Lucifer is offered a chance to return to live in Heaven, by God, if he can live on Earth, as a mortal, and not cause trouble, for one month. The body he is given as his instrument of redemption belongs to a writer, and that inspires Lucifer to use the time to tell his version of Creation, Adam and Eve and original sin, Jesus Christ (or Junior or Jimminy Christmas or a bunch of other nick names the Devil uses for the guy who got in the way of Hell being a capacity crowd), and a lot of other things that we mortals haven't gotten quite the truth about, in his opinion. With the power of clairvoyance, it's quite easy to gather an entourage of just the type of people we've all suspected were one step removed from the dark one - commercial film makers and their ilk. Underneath Lucifer's manipulations, there's a surprising sweet story of how the Angels (fallen and un-fallen) are similar to a lot of big families where the father reigns supreme. When that subplot turns into a very satisfying ending, you know you've read a story by an author who wasn't afraid to go full out.


Books 33 - 35

33. Hero by Perry Moore - I was hoping for something beyond a "coming of age" plot from this winner of the 2008 LAMBDA Fiction for Young Adults, and I wasn't too disappointed. Thom, the main character, has more pressing matters than coming to terms with being gay - he's got super powers, and although that's not all that unusual in the world Moore has created, it's not all that easy, either. Super powers don't make the other people any smarter or less judgmental or less likely to have problems of their own, as Thom learns when he's accepted to train with an organized group of crime fighters. And dealing with his father's fall from public grace and his mother's abandonment are still crappy facts of life, even if you hang out with people who can fly and throw flames and all kinds of other cool tricks. The book isn't especially strong on writing style (I wondered if Moore equates writing for young adults to writing like a young adult) and the world Thom lives in is a little grey when it comes to sense of place, but as a story about how we're all the same in that we're all different, it's a pleasant read.

34. M is for Magic by Neil Gaiman, read by the author - A collection of short stories by Gaiman that have all been published previously, this time collected with the Young Adult reader (listener) in mind. There's a definite building of story depth as you progress through this book, from the beginning "The Case Of The Four And Twenty Blackbirds", a noir crime fiction using some of the best known names in nursery rhymes, to the final "The Witch's Headstone" that brings together all sorts of dark magic that doesn't end badly, if not well. Gaiman is one of the very few writers that I know of that is also an excellent story narrator. (For evidence of that, listen to The New Yorker's podcasts of authors reading their favorite authors!) Every story in this collection by Gaiman has the sound of being told to entertain - and they do.

35. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Other Jazz Age Tales by F. Scott Fitzgerald, audio book read by Grover Gardiner - I'd like to be more positive about these stories, but as the collection progressed, a single, sad thought kept coming to my mind - Fitzgerald really was a one hit wonder. That might be unfair, in that these stories are his early works, but they were published, so they do stand as a part of his body of work. The titled story is pretty good, especially in concept. And the arc of the main character gives an interesting look at what would happen if we really were more mature when we were younger rather than older. But the story never goes too deep, and the supporting characters are more like backstops, there to bounce dialog and action off of, but never adding structure. The stories are all surface, glitzy and wordy and overwritten, and if you try to look deeper, you'll discover Fitzgerald didn't go any deeper. I suppose that's a good portrait of the era he was writing in, but beyond their historical significance, I'd have a hard time recommending this collection to anyone.


Books 30 -32

30. Waking the Dead by Scott Spencer- Now I understand why so many people appreciate Scott Spencer's work. Thanks to a user on LJ for recommending I try again after my disappointment with Willing. Fielding Pierce is a man who wants to be a part of the system. When he falls in love with a woman who believes the system is flawed and devotes her self to working for those who can't fight for themselves, it would seem that there's no way the relationship would work. And it wasn't working when she was killed as part of collateral damage in a political assassination. This sets Fielding on a path of loving what he has lost, but at the same time, achieve his goal of playing the political game so well he ends up running for election for Congress, with all the right backers. Still clinging to the dream of what might have never been with Sarah, he appears to slowly be losing his grip on reality. The story is set for the most part in wintery Chicago, a place Spencer seems to know really well. He also has a good grasp of what it is to grieve for the future when the rest of the world has already moved on.

31.Death Masks:Book Five of the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher - This time around, Dresden goes in search of a very well known and very investigated sacred relic of the Roman Catholic church. That means Michael and a few other Knights of the Cross get involved, and in my opinion that always leads to a Dresden File that's a little better researched than the ones that don't use these characters. Also back for this book are Susan, who adds little to the plot but quite a bit to Dresden's character development, and my favorite supporting character, White Court vampire Thomas Raith. The plot isn't Butcher's strongest, but he makes great use of his Chicago setting in this book, including an off-season Wrigley Field. (Side note for fans of this series who also listen to Podcasts. Jim Butcher did a short "Meet The Writers" audio interview that is available through Barnes and Noble. He comes across as a very likable guy (not unlike Harry Dresden) and his explanation for how Bob's physical appearance was chosen is pure writer gold.)

32. The Wise Heart by Jack Kornfield - This was probably not the best book for me to choose as I switch from being curious about Buddhism to actively investigating it as a path I might want to follow, as it goes deep into the how Buddhism heals the troubled mind and skims the fundamentals. I still got a lot from it, possibly because I have a small background in Jungian psychology (I had no idea they shared so much) and also because Kornfield has so much experience in the are of Insightful Meditation that he's pretty much got an easy to understand example for every situation. So may examples they sometimes break the flow of the teaching of something he has entitled The Principles of Buddhist Psychology, but they do keep the book from getting mired down in psycho babble. The lessons at the end of each chapter are easy to follow and demonstrate that if someone does choose The Middle Way, it's not an overnight conversion. Be prepared to work on yourself.


Book reviews 25 - 29

25. I Hate To See That Evening Sun Go Down: Collected Stories by William Gay - There's a quote from the Minneapolis Star Tribune's review of this collection of short stories on the fly leaf: "Writers like Flannery O'Connor or William Faulkner would welcome Gay as their peer for getting characters to entangled in the roots of a family tree.". That is a dead on description and praise for the stories Gay tells. Not one of these stories is an easy passage, not for the characters and not for the readers. Even in the few where it seems that everyone has the best intentions something gets twisted, something inside a character breaks, and damage is done. As dark fiction goes, every story in this book is a good one, and I don't know that I could pick a favorite. Standing Near Peaceful Waters has a surprise ending that belies its down to earth plot; Good Til Now and Sugarbaby show that Gay has spent as much time watching people as he has spent observing the hills of Tennessee; and Closure and Roadkill on Life's Highway does such a good job of developing a sympathetic main character you'll still like him after he has his moment of darkness. If you like Southern Gothic or dark fiction, I'd strongly recommend this collection.

26. The Winter Prince by Elizabeth Wein - Where was this kind of Young Adult fiction when I was a young adult?!?! This is a retelling of the Arthurian legend using alternate characters: Arthur becomes Artos, his power hungry sister Morgause remains Morgause but picks up the skills of sister Morgan le Fey, and the focus of the story, the Winter Prince, is Medraut , AKA Mordred. In this book (the first of a series), Medraut has returned to his father's kingdom Camlan after a having spent some very damaging time with his mother and then taking a sort of grand tour where he learned that he wasn't the monster his mother wants him to be. But faced with a much younger and weaker brother who will be crowned king because of birth and not ability, Medraut begins to see the shades of gray between good and evil. This series could be called "A Ring of Ice and Fire Lite", and I mean that as a compliment. It's a fast read for an adult looking for a Middle Ages fantasy fix to ease the pain of waiting for George RR Martin to release the next book in his epic series.

27. Nightfall by Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg - Good, basic, no-frills science fiction from the master. Nightfall began life as a short story by Asimov and was expanded to full novel length by the partnership of Asimov and Silverberg. Often, that makes for a story that's obviously padded, but not in this case. A planet with customs and inhabitants very similar to Earth is about to experience something we take quite for granted (but never quite stop fearing) - natural darkness. Five of their suns will be below the horizon and the sixth will be eclipsed for the first time in scientifically recorded history. A religious group has been predicting it based on their own records, calling it the end of the world. Science meets religion/legend, and as the inhabitants of the planet must choose a side. It's very easy to see the comparisons to events in our own planetary history, but not so easy to see which way the story will turn out.

28. Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham, audiobook read by Alan Cumming - What a magical thing it would be to spend a day inside Michael Cunningham's head as he observes the world around him. It is through his power of noticing details and then being able to describe those details that makes his writing so damn good. Specimen Days is no exception to his string of stories that are not only very readable, but will come back to haunt you for days and weeks and who knows how long. In this book, we have three short stories that share a lot but manage to be very different. The main characters names are the same in each story, one character's physical appearance stays the same, and all rely on New York City as not only a setting but also a dynamic to each plot. But with one story set in the early 20th century, the second is contemporary, and the third takes place in the future, they all stand independent in purpose. I'm not sure what was better about this book - as a writer I was in awe of Cunningham's skill and as a reader I felt totally swept into these three worlds. And then, there's Alan Cumming as a narrator, creating distinct voices for all the characters with just the right amount of subtlety. This was a perfect blend of narrator and story.

29. Arms of Nemesis: A Novel of Ancient Rome by Steven Saylor - The second of Saylor's Roma Sub Rosa novels featuring Gordianus the Finder as ancient Rome's favorite Private Eye. This time his abilities are requested by the widow of Marcus Crassus' cousin. Widow tells you what the mystery is that needs to be solved and if you're familar with the First Triumverate you'll know that Crassus will be mixed up in it and probably not in a good way. In this fiction, he's invoked a out of fashion punishment of killing all the slaves in a household if the one guilty of a crime against the master does not accept responsiblity. The plot of this book is secondary to Saylor's attempt to humanize slaves and show his Gordianus as way ahead of his time morally. It's all a little forced and if it weren't for the great sense of place I would have abandoned the book fifty pages in. There are better historical novels that address slavery, but there aren't a lot of better light reading historical novels about Rome before Julius Caesar came to power.


Books 22 - 24

22. Willing by Scott Spencer - This is a novel with a great idea for a plot suffering from multiple genre disorder. Is it farce? Comedy? Literary fiction? It's possible for a book to be at least two of those things, maybe all three, but this book doesn't quite achieve any of them. Avery Jankowsky, a freelance writer who's not quite making a living as a writer but is doing too well to quit, tells us the story of his many fathered childhood; his disappointing attempts at relationships; and how they all lead him to take an all expenses paid sex tour. Skipping along through Scandinavia with his fellow travelers, Avery always seems on the verge of breaking out of his self imposed dreariness. If he had, we'd have a funny book. If he discovered he couldn't, this could have been a story of a man accepting his life for what it is. Instead, we get a bunch of characters doing exactly what you knew they were going to do the moment you first read about them, and an ending that puts the story almost exactly back where it started.

23. A Prisoner of Birth by Jeffrey Archer, read by Roger Allam - The Count of Monte Cristo is one of my favorite books of all time. I re-read it every couple years, and if I stumble across a movie version on television, I am powerless to not watch it, no matter how many times I've seen that version before (or how bad the adaptation is). When I heard that Archer had done an "update" on TCoMC for his newest book, of course I had to read/listen to it. The bad news is Archer still writes like a man who could live alone on a deserted island and never tire of the company. He writes. And he writes. And he writes more. Sometimes what he writes moves the story forward and about equal to that happening we get a rehashing of something we were already told or were able to figure out from context. Case in point, I inadvertently skipped disc 9 of the audiobook, and it didn't make one bit of difference to the story. The good news is, TCOmC is a story that has to be changed to be updated. Contemporary technology, finance, and law make it much more difficult to become someone else and then insinuate yourself into the lives of your nemeses. Archer does a good job of bringing the heart of TCoMC into the modern world. If only he had done it with few words. He is, unfortunately, another victim of SKS.

24. The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear by Ralph Keyes- This is the book to turn to when that little voice inside your head begins to whisper (and then shout if you let it get away with it) "You? A writer?? Who do you think you're kidding??!?!?". This is the book you read when you hear that same vice as you sit down in front of a key board or pick up a pen asking, "What will my family think if they read this?", followed quickly by "What if no one but my family ever reads this?". And lastly, this is the book to read when you think that if what you are writing is "good" it would come to you in a better form, or at least more easily. This book doesn't give you writing exercises to condition your writing muscles, it doesn't teach you the mechanics of plotting and character arcs. What it does is give you antidotes and quotes from and about successful (sometimes financially, sometimes critically, sometimes both) authors and how they got past those awful moments. Some of the stories deal with the physical (when is the best time to write?), sometimes the psychological (this story is my baby, no one can love it like I do!), but they all deal with the blocks, real and imagined, that every writer faces at some point (or at too many points, in most cases).


Books 19- 21

19. The God of Animals by Aryn Kyle, read by Lily Rabe - Aryn Kyle has set herself a very high bar with this book, her first novel. It is a story of a family going through some tough times, nothing too extraordinary, told by the twelve year old youngest daughter. Of course our narrator sees herself at the center of this family, that's how twelve year olds think. But the reader will see how all the lives are falling apart, coming back together, and sometimes stagnating, while staying true to a young girl's voice. The sense of place (a small horse ranch in the desert) is so strong you can just about smell the leather saddles, the characters are fully fleshed out, even those that only appear on a few pages, and the plot takes some surprising, but very believable turns. The only negative was Kyle's female chauvinism. The women of this story act while the men react. The women are the instigators, the men are manipulated. There are a few exceptions to this, but it was noticeable enough I found myself wondering how the father could be so weak and oblivious and have raised daughters who think so well for themselves.

20. Speaking With The Angel, Edited by Nick Hornby - A collection of short stories written by friends of Nick Hornby at his request to raise money for an autism education program in England (and in the US if you buy the published in America version). The only requirement Honby gave his friends was that the stories be told in first person. With that broad of a brief, you're bound to get a variety of tone, plot, and of as in any anthology, quality. Colin Firth, for one, should never quit his day job. And Dave Eggars reminded me that writing as an animal will cause an immediate disconnect with the reader that is very difficult to overcome. On the positive side, a few of the stories are just down right good short fiction: Roddy Doly writes "The Slave", a sneaky little story that examines the difference between maturity and age; Giles Smith brings us "Last Requests", about person with a very unique job - preparing the last meals for death row inmates; and Irvine Welsh writes in the voice of a homophobe who finds the afterlife exactly what he wants it to be. It wasn't a surprise to learn Walsh was the author of "Trainspotting". Of all the pieces, my favorite was "NippleJesus", by Hornby himself, a "what is art?" story that shows that the question is more important than the answer.

21. Twilight by William Gay - This is a Southern Gothic horror story with the emphasis on people and place over action. That's more than enough to make this story a page turner of the highest calibre. A young man who probably thought his childhood was the worst thing that could happen to him finds himself mixed up with some truly evil men as a result of a question about his father's internment. In an attempt to find justice, he crosses paths with a county full of those sort of characters that make Southern Gothic stand apart from any other genre. The story cuts back and forth, not always smoothly, but when you get to the part that meets up with the beginning of the book, it's all too clear - and perfectly gruesome. Gay goes all out with the dialect and social customs of the region he's writing about, and they add to the "other worldy" aspect of this dark and violent tale. I can't wait to read more of what he's written!


Books 16 - 18

16. California Screaming by Doug Guinan - Funny, trashy, light but not dumb - a simply good "junk food" read. Yes, the book gives away its underlying theme by having one character actually say it, "Maybe young gay men are looking for father figures and in doing so, they won't always make the best relationship choices". Ignore the attempt to provide deeper meaning and just go along for the ride in Hollywood where a broke but beautiful (even by their artificially high standards) guy hooks up with a very big deal player; a sweet and lonely guy falls deep into the muscle queen swamp, and some people actually manage to grow up and act like adults.

17. Duma Key by Stephen King, audiobook read by John Slattery - First, the negative. Stephen King still suffers from what I call SKS, a malady I named for him because he was the first author that I saw it in. It is Stephen King Syndrome, and it could be cured by an editor standing up to a successful author and saying "You're not being paid by the word! Every thought does not belong on the page. Cut the crap!" JK Rowling went through a bout in the middle of her series, imo. So yes, Duma Key is much longer than it needs to be. Phone calls and emails are quoted verbatim when they add nothing to the story. Characters make oh-so-clever pop culture references to show King's cleverness, not the character's. The horror part of the story is played out repetitively to the point it's just not scary anymore. So, in short, TOO LONG!
But the good? Nobody writes about the creative process like King does. Read his "In Writing" and you'll be a better writer for the effort. Read any of the many interviews he's done about what he goes through to produce a book, and you'll understand, it's not magic, it's work - hard, disciplined, sometimes heartbreaking work. But you do it if it calls to you, because to not do it makes life unbearable. In Duma Key, the story centers on a man who's been in a terrible construction accident and must build himself a new life. King uses his experience of recovering from a car accident to take the reader into the mind of someone who barely knows himself anymore. As a form of self-therapy, the man moves to a new local and takes up painting (or does painting take him up? It is a ghost story, after all!). Through out the story, there are chapters titled "How To Draw A Picture" , and they are the short course from Stephen King on how to sit down and put that idea that's in your head down on paper, whether it be in words or in pictures. Those are the chapters that kept me listening to this book at the times when I really did not care who or what was the monstrous muse that haunted Duma Key. Well, that and John Slattery's perfect-for-this-story voice.

18.Cheri and The Last of Cheri by Colette - On the surface, this is the melodramatic love story of a boytoy and the woman who turned him out. But go deeper, and you see that the characters are going through a lot more than simply growing old - they're all growing up, a condition brought on not only by nature but also by post WWI Paris. Cheri was raised to be an ornament, something his mother, lover, and finally wife could be proud to call her own. What all these women failed to see was that while they moved forward in life, he wanted nothing more than to hold on to what he had - even if it didn't exist anymore. It's that realization, that all things change and that he was incapable of changing with them, that changed my opinion an whether Cheri was a weak coward or a tragic victim.


Books 14 - 15

14.In Defense of Food, An Eater's Manifesto by Michael Pollan - This is the follow-up to Pollans's book The Omnivore's Dilemma, attempting to answer the question a lot of readers had after that first book - "What should I eat?" Pollan's simple answer is on the cover of this book, as well as leading off the introduction: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Simple advice, explained in detail over the course of the rest of this rather short but loaded with footnotes and references book. The bulk of the book deals with Nutritionalism - the science/religion that tells us something new every day about what to eat and what not to eat, often canceling out what we had been told years and sometimes even only months before, the end result of making the process of nourishing ourselves far more complicated than it needs to be. Pollan shows how the US government tried and failed massively to help Americans choose a healthier diet in the 60s and 70s and how it's not even trying any more. He covers the history of nutritional science as it relates to health, pointing out the reversals that come as science unlocks more secrets and taking that as evidence that we probably don't know very much at all about why what we eat affects our health. It's that core theme of the book that has me questioning what Pollan is saying - if scientists don't know, what's he basing his theories on? Common sense for the most part, fine, but some suggestions, such as "Don't eat anything your great grandmother wouldn't recognize as food" seems to jump to the conclusion that all new things are probably bad things. It's still a very good book about what's going wrong with the Western Diet, but I wouldn't call it a manifesto.

15. The Rotter's Club by Jonathan Coe - A funny, sad, romantic, historical, and always entertaining coming of age novel about the lives of four young men in 1970's Birmingham England. As an American, I'm sure I'm missing some of the major story line about labour and some of the minor pop culture points, but I understood enough to know that the characters are complicated and interesting and very, very human. I was glad to know there's a sequel, because when this book ended I wasn't ready to say good bye to these guys or their families.


Books 11 - 13

11. Lord John and The Hand of Devils by Diana Gabaldon - I'm sorry to say, it's happened again. :( Once again, I'm off of Diana Gabaldon's books. She's a good story teller, I worship her research abilities, and she has wonderful ideas for plots. And I think Lord John is a damn interesting character, in his own right! But Jamie Frasier is dragged into each of these stories, and that's all a little too emo for me. I'm simply not a Jamie fan, I guess.

12.Maximum Ride: The Angel Experiment by James Patterson - I read this entirely out of curiosity. Once upon a time, a was a fan of Patterson's mysteries. I fell out of "fan", however, when the descriptions of violence and torture ran longer and with more detail than the descriptions of any other part of the story. Sue me, but TorturePorn is no more my thing on the page than on the screen. So how could a writer who knew no limits handle young adult fiction, I wondered? Quite well, it turns out. The story arc is a little weak, but the characters are innovative (genetically engineered super powered kids that don't act like mini-adults), the multiple settings are all equally well written, and the violence isn't there just because the author writes it well. I'm hoping the second book picks up with a story and an actual resolution of something, instead of all the set up that this book is.

13. City of the Sun by David Levien - Levien goes beyond the basic PI mystery by going into a crime that most writers would shy away from - pedophilia compounded with sex slaves. We know who committed the abduction, we know what's happened to the young boy, and we know that he's still alive before the investigator or the parents, but there's still a lot of suspense as to what shape the kid will be in when he's found. Unfortunately, Levien's background as a screenwriter takes over in the final scene, and good solid story telling is replaced by an over the top action scene that brings the cheapens the whole book. He's got some very interesting characters - especially the bad guys; and he knows his setting - Indianapolis. It's too bad the last thing the reader is left with is something from a direct to video action movie.


Book Reviews

9. A Gladiator Dies Only Once: The Further Investigations of Gordianus the Finder by Steven Saylor - Another collection of short stories featuring Gordianus the Finder, Saylor's last century BC private investigator. There's more mystery in this collection and less character, something that works fine if you've read the other stories. With one exception, these are well done historical fiction, that is, stories that put you effortlessly in a place and time. The exception is the title story, which reads more like the kind of historical fiction they use to trick elementary kids into learning something than adult reading. The reasons those stories don't work on kids is because no one likes to be lectured, and that's exactly how all the information Saylor has gathered about Gladiator's comes across. A lecture shoehorned into a very easy to solve murder case. Other than that one story - it's a good read.

10. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, audiobook read by Allen Corduner - This novel definitely has one of the best narrators I've read in a long time - Death. A smart, observant, down to earth sort of Death who gets to see a lot as he goes about the world, collecting souls that have passed on. He's not deadly, this Death, he's simply punctual. He's telling us the story of a young girl in the Nazi Germany, but really he's telling the story of the power (and the hunger) that comes from knowledge. Knowledge defined as the ability to read in this book, but there's a whole lot of other learning going on, as well. Learning about people, and love, and with Death as a narrator, obviously loss. This audiobook version was wonderful, the reader had a perfect accent and pitch for all the characters, and even handled the sort of editorial asides in such a way that the flow of the story never went astray.


Winter 2008 NBCC Best Book Recomends....

....well, the first thing they recommended is to change the name of the list, to NBCC's Good Reads. And then they came up with a list of books, getting a lot more authors and critics to tell them what they'd recommend to anyone who wanted to know "What should I read?". These first cold dark days (seriously, here in the Midwest States it never got brighter than twilight today!)of 2008, they say your time will be well spent with:


1. Denis Johnson, Tree of Smoke (Farrar Straus & Giroux)
2. Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Riverhead)
3. J.M. Coetzee, Diary of a Bad Year (Viking)
4. Geraldine Brooks, People of the Book (Viking)
5. Steve Erickson, Zeroville (Europa)


1. The Rest Is Noise, by Alex Ross (FSG)
2. Brother, I’m Dying, by Edwidge Danticat (Knopf)
3. In Defense of Food, by Michael Pollan (Penguin Press)
4. Musicophilia, by Oliver Sacks (Knopf)*
5. The Shock Doctrine, by Naomi Klein (Metropolitan)*

Johnson, Diaz and Ross's books were on the list in November, and that's got to be a very strong recommendation, indeed. They're all on my hold list at the local library, and I should be getting all of them very soon (but not at the same time I hope - that's a little too much serious reading for me). I'm happy to see the Michael Pollan's new book is a recommend as well. His The Omnivore's Dilemma was a great read and had a very positive effect on my life. Or perhaps a good negative - it was a major contributor to me losing 60+ pounds. I skimmed this new book at the book store, and it looks just as good.


A Rabbit Hole for Word Lovers

It's either educational or a time sucker. Okay, it's both, and fun too. A perfect rabbit hole!



Book Reviews

6. Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips - It's a setting that just full of possibilities: the Greek Gods of Olympus are still around and most of the principles are living in a rundown house in modern London. With characters like Apollo and Athena and Hermes, there's no end to complications and plot twists, right? Phillips does come up with jobs suitable of her cast - Aphrodite as a phone sex operator just makes perfect sense. And if Apollo and Aphrodite live in the same house, they probably would end up having sex with each other, considering their particular strengths, and despite being half siblings. Altogether, wouldn't we expect the whole clan to be just as dysfunctional in this age as the one they originated in? But that's the problem with this book - the characters do act all too often just as you'd expect. They have almost no arc. I guess that's the problem with characters so deitic - they have no where to go but down, and if that's not your ending, you really don't have much of a story. There are two mortals that get mixed up with this crazy family, and they do have a journey, but you'd think with people like Zeus and Hades getting involved, the whole thing would be more.....epic?

7. The Pox Party by M.T. Anderson, read by Peter Francis James - As young adult fiction, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume 1: The Pox Party, as the full title goes, is pretty astonishing in its own right. Told first from the pov of a pre-Revolutionary War period slave living in Boston, then in epistolary form from the pov of a fellow soldier in the rebel militia group he attaches himself to, and then again from Octvian's pov, this is a side of that time period rarely presented in fiction, let alone discussed in history classes. Octavian starts sout his life in a rarified condition - he receives an exemplary classical eduction. Why this slave receives such an education, and how what he has learned plays out against the common perceptions about his race and station is told in vocabulary and grammar correct to his time period. As an adult listening to the story, I thought the set up dragged a bit, but that's usually the case when an adult reads TA fiction. The second and third parts of the story, though, are a well told story for any age. The ending is a set up for a second volume, and I'm very curious to see how the author handles his character during the actual war.

8. The Guardians by Ana Castillo - Whenever I read a story told in the form of characters getting their own chapters to tell their versions of overlapping events, I hold that story to a higher standard. Why? Because it's an easier way to tell a story. The author doesn't have to pin down the voice they're going to use. In the case of this book, that higher standard is exceeded. A fifty-something legal immigrant from Mexico has taken custody of her illegal immigrant sixteen year old nephew. Her brother, a man who has crossed back and forth from New Mexico to Mexico so many time he no longer needs a coyote to guide him (but still must use one because the coyotes are all about job security), has gone missing. Regina does not want to give up hope that her brother will return, Gabo the nephew who already lost his mother to a cross over gone very bad, tries to use his extreme faith in God to guide him in all areas of his life, and a handful of interesting characters, not caricatures all share in the search. You won't forget what happens to these people because Castillo makes you care about them, no matter what your opinion on illegal immigrants.


Book Reviews

1. Person of Interest by Theresa Schwegel - Schwegel knows her setting (Chicago and the near 'burbs) well enough that that alone made this a good read. Then, she populated her story with flawed humans, my very favorite kind to read about! At the center of the story is a married couple who hit the wall in their marriage at the same time. This comes at a bad time, as the husband is an cop on a case that is far closer to his home than he can imagine, and the wife is looking to greener pastures just when her daughter's accommodating boyfriend wanders through. The police investigation is the central plot, but because of the perfectly believable way Schwegel brings all the members of the family into that plot, it's not your average police thriller story. The ending was a little too neat and nice for my tastes, but aside from that, I really liked this book.

2. Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life by Steve Martin, Audiobook read by the Author - This was good - so very good! I'd strongly recommend the audiobook over the book because Martin does small bits of his original routines, and hearing them is so much better than reading them. The audiobook also has Martin playing banjo for the chapter breaks. If you're a fan of Martin's, interested in the history of stand up comedy, nostalgic for the 1970's, curious about just how serious comedy can be, or want to study a genius's creative process, listen to or at least read this book. Covering Martin's childhood to his last days in stand-up (and explains in good part why they were his last days of stand-up), the biography ends in the late 70s. Just as I wish Stphen Fry would get busy on his second volume of memoir's, I hope Martin is planning on writing about the second third of his career.

3.Memoirs of Hadrian and Reflections on the composition of memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar - A fictional memoir of Roman emperor Publius Aelius Traianus Hadrianus, told in the form of a very long letter to his appointed successor, Marcus Aurelius. Yourcenar has Hadrian covers his life pretty much in chronological order, occasionally jumping forward or backward to explain how he came to feel the way he did about a few of the vast number of topics he covers. As historical fiction of the Roman period, it's a so-so read, with more focus on character than place or time. As a character driven story it's true a page turner. Hadrian's rule bridged the time when the Roman gods began to be replaced by Christianity and other cults, and he made an attempt to understand (if not agree with) the Jews of the time period. He's probably better known for his great love for Antinous, and Yourcenar does a beautiful job of establishing that relationship without sensationalizing it, especially dealing with Hadrian's deification of the young man who captured his heart.

4. I Am Legend by Richard Matheson - A collection of horror short stories including the one that lends its title and very basic premise to the the recent Will Smith movie. Matheson writes stories that put the terrible into the mundane. His monsters, evil spirits and boogey men cross over to our world in a way that will have you second guessing the logical explanations for those bumps in the night. He's not heavy on morals and meanings, these are simple horror stories that don't have deeper meanings. There's also some humor, especially in the almost silly but very enjoyable The Funeral. The collection also includes Prey, the basis for 1/3 of the awesome Dan Curtis production "Trilogy of Terror".

5. Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemingway, ready by Patrick Wilson - This book was published, unfinished, after Hemingway's death. As such, it would be unfair to criticize it as a finished novel. It's more like a third or fourth draft - still full of holes in some parts, over written in other places. The story follows a recently married couple through their several honeymoon in Europe, while at the same time the husband attempts to work as a novelist. The character of the husband voices what must have been some of Hemingway's thoughts about the writing process (and his thoughts on drinking while you write, as well), while the young wife explores her sexuality through gender switching and a first time lesbian affair. The husband falls in love with the wife's lover as well, but that may have been more out of self preservation than attraction, in my opinion. The real benefit of reading this book is to fellow writers. It's reassuring to know that someone like Hemingway sometimes wrote very badly on his way to writing the great stuff. As for the audio version - Patrick Wilson should not attempt feminine French accents. It took this listener right of of the story and had me thinking I was listening to a parody or comedy routine.


Foodie Friday: 2007 in Review

Grist.org has a post up from their food editor, Roz Cummins, discussing the high and low points of her year in food. And yeah, she's had some low points - Grapples??? I guess they're not so new, but so far, I've been spared the creep factor of seeing them. Nutritionally, they're no different than a unadulterated apple, so the only gain in eating them is the flavor. The negative? Check out the ingredients of the Grapple: apples, natural and artificial flavor. Yep, nothing like "artificial ingredients in your apple!

Ms. Cummins' post did get me thinking of some of my best and worsts of this, a very big year for me nutritionally speaking.

My worst discovery - What's happened to our corn? I read the book The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan, and became annoyingly conscious of how this simple grain has turned into a bad, bad thing, both politically, economically and nutritionally. Grocery shopping became much more complicated.

My best discovery - Meat isn't a great thing for me. At least, not in the amounts this Midwestern, middle class, German heritage person was raised to think were "right". I started cutting it out of my life, partially because of what I read in that pesky Omnivore's Dilemma, partially because it's gotten so damn expensive, and partially because I wanted to try something new as a part of a calorie reduced diet. Within a few weeks of replacing most of the meat in my diet with veggies and whole grains I noticed a lot of positive changes in my general health. I'm not a vegetarian by any definition and have no desire to become one (yet), but I gotta say - too much meat is about as bad as too much alcohol, at least for me.