Saturday, January 31, 2009

Giveaway: God is My Coach by Larry Julian

Flap copy from cover:
In God is My Coach, business leadership coach and bestselling author Larry Julian shows you how to navigate the "gray zone"- those defining moments where we face dilemmas and decisions that don't have black and white solutions...Julian guides us through his practical eight-step coaching process, teaching us how to live and lead in the context of uncertainty rather than becoming paralyzed by it..."

I received a copy of this book to review, but assume it was in error as this is not the type of book I generally read. Because I feel unable to give this book a fair read, I would like to pass it along to another reviewer more likely to appreciate its message. To enter, just leave me a comment below explaining why you'd like to read this book; I'll pick a winner based on some kind of wonderful double-blind super-secret scientific process on February 7th. Good luck!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Leisure Seeker by Michael Zadoorian

Flap Copy from ARC:
John and Ella Robina have shared a wonderful life rich in memories for more than fifty years. In their twilight years, Ella suffers from cancer and has chosen to stop treatment. John has Alzheimer's. Yearning for one last adventure, the self-proclaimed "down-on-their-luck geezers" kidnap themselves from the adult children and doctors who seem to run their lives and steal off on a forbidden vacation of rediscovery. With Ella as a co-pilot, John steers their '78 Leisure Seeker RV along the forgotten roads of Route 66 toward Disneyland in search of a past they're having a damned hard time remembering. Ella is determined to prove that, when it comes to life, a person can go back for seconds- sneak a little extra time, grab a small portion more- even when everyone says "impossible."

This book was an incredible story of meeting life on its own terms right up until the very end. Though parts of the book are laugh-out-loud funny, others will bring tears to your eyes. Watching John and Ella deal with their individual challenges while trying to be strong for one another, I couldn't help but be on their side against their children and doctors as they sought to take an illicit trip down memory lane.

The ending (don't worry- no spoilers here) was not a surprise; Zadoorian did such a deft job of his storytelling that it seemed natural and understandable. I felt connected to each of the characters (even the children I couldn't side with) and was truly invested in the story. This is a wonderful book that deals realistically with the issues of breast cancer and Alzheimer's, life and death, love and loss. Strongly written, extremely empathetic, this is a highly recommended fast read.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips

Flap Copy from cover:
"The twelve Greek gods of Olympus are alive and well in the twenty-first century, but the are crammed together in a London town house- and none too happy about it. For Artemis (goddess of hunting, professional dog walker), Aphrodite (goddess of beauty, telephone sex operator), and Apollo (god of the sun, TV psychic), there's no way out- until a meek housecleaner, Alice, and her would-be boyfriend, Neil, turn their world upside down.

When what begins as a minor squabble between Aphrodite and Apollo escalates into an epic battle of wills, Alice and Neil must fear not only for their own lives but for the survival of humankind. Nothing less than a true act of heroism is needed- but can these two ordinary people replicate the feats of the mythical heroes and save the world?"

I thought this was a fun book, mostly because it made me think back to those high school lit classes where we covered the Greek gods and read the Odyssey (and groaned a lot). The book is a very light-hearted look at an extremely dysfunctional family of deities living in a ratty house in London, wreaking vague havoc and small-scale mayhem as they drive each other slowly crazy.

There were a couple of interesting and unexpected twists throughout the story, but the ending was a foregone conclusion (to me at least). Though the big revelation for the gods was no surprise to me at all, I suspect it wasn't supposed to be- just further proof of how out of touch they were. A quick and funny read, this book doesn't attempt to break any ground (in theology or literature) but was an enjoyable way to spend a rainy afternoon.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Tourist by Olen Steinhauer

Flap Copy from ARC:
"He was once the CIA's most dangerous 'tourist' - an undercover agent with no identity and no home. Now Milo Weaver has become a middle-level manager in the CIA's New York headquarters. With a wife, a daughter, and a brownstone in Brooklyn he's left his secret life behind. But when the arrest of a long-sought-after enemy sets off an investigation into one of Milo's oldest colleagues and exposes new layers of intrigue in his past cases, Milo goes back undercover to find out who's jerking the strings once and for all."

In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess I rarely read this type of spy-thriller novel. That said, I was very impressed by this novel and enjoyed it much more that I anticipated. The writing is tight and the author avoids the tendency to lapse into stereotypical spy novel dialogue. The action in the book moves fast, and I can already seen in my head the blockbuster movie that could be made from this story.

Milo's relationship with his wife Tina and step-daughter Stephanie adds an unusually human touch to this action adventure, and helps flesh out Milo as a character. The plot, though complicated, is well-drawn, and I was guessing right up to the very last pages. All in all, an enjoyable fast read, and an excellent example of the genre.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Mistress Shakespeare by Karen Harper

Flap copy from ARC:
"Elizabethan beauty Anne Whateley records intimate details of her dangerous, daring life and her great love, William Shakespeare. As historical records show, Anne Whateley of Temple Grafton is betrothed to Will just days before he is forced to wed the pregnant Anne Hathaway. The secret Whateley-Shakespeare match is a meeting of hearts and heads that no one- not even Queen Elizabeth or her spymasters- can destroy. Often at odds, always in love, the couple sells Will's first plays, and as he climbs to theatrical power in England, they fight off firce competition from other London dramatists, some as treacherous as they are talented. Persecution and plague, insurrection and inferno, friends and foes, even executions of those they hold dear, bring Anne's heartrending story to life."

I know little about the actual historical basis for this novel, but certainly enjoyed this take on Shakespeare in love. Ann Whateley is a strong woman in the cast of Elizabeth I herself, and her independence and creativity serve as Shakespeare's inspiration for many of his works. I was less delighted with her willingness to accept the poor behavior meted out by her true love, though the author did do a good job capturing the duality of Anne's feelings of love and hate.

Will Shakespeare is presented as a flawed man first, undeniable genius second. His efforts to write while earning enough to support his growing family are complicated by the complex political situation that thrives on suspicion and uncertainty. In the end, Shakespeare chooses to live in London and to write with his love, but he never really seems to acknowledge the harm he has done to both of the women in his life.

At heart, this novel is a love story, and it succeeds as such. Unfortunately, Harper falls into the trap of attempting quasi-period speech and her efforts fall flat. I found that when the characters lapsed into period language, the entire momentum of the narrative came to a halt. If it hadn't been for the language, I would have gone 4 stars, but as it is can only give this novel 3.5 stars.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

Flap copy from ARC:
"In 1986, Henry Lee, a Chinese American widower, comes upong a crowd gathered outside the Panama Hotel, once the gateway to Seattles Japantown. It has been boarded up for decades, but now a new owner has made an incredible discovery: the belongings of Japanese families left behind when they were rounded up and sent to internment camps during WWII. As Henry looks on, memories take him back to the 1940s.

At the height of the war, Henry meets Keiko Okabe, a young Japanese American student, at the exclusive Ranier Elementary. They for a friendship- and an innocent love- that transcends the long-standing prejudices of their Old World ancestors. After Keiko and her family are evacuated to the internment camps, she and Henry are left with only the hope that the war will end and that their promise to each other will be kept."

I've read some reviews that thought this book was over the top on the sentimental scale, but I truly enjoyed it. This is a moving tale of innocence and love during one of the darker chapters of our nation's history. Watching Henry struggle to reconcile his own feelings with his father's bigotry against the backdrop of the internment process was captivating; I literally couldn't put this book down.

I found it heartbreaking that it was Keiko's family, better assimilated and determined to view themselves as American, that suffered while Henry's "I am Chinese" button kept him safe in an uncertain world. As all of Seattle unraveled around them, Henry and Keiko tried so hard to remain true to the principles of acceptance, and it was so often unexpected people that helped them along their way.

Unlike most books that flashback to the WWII period, I did not find myself irritated by the present-day narrative. Henry's interactions with his son, and gradual realization that he was repeating the same mistake of silence were as compelling as his history with Keiko, and I was delighted at the resolution of the novel.

A highly recommended 5 stars for this one!

The Laments by George Hagen

Flap copy:
"Meet the Laments- the outlandish, stubborn, and beguiling family at the center of this...novel which begins with a child switched at birth. As the Laments fitfully move from Africa to England to suburban New Jersey, one wonders where they will ever belong..."

This novel tracking the lives of a globetrotting family paints a poignant picture of the expat lifestyle and the desperate quest to belong. Julia and Howard Lament are both trying to overcome the shortcomings of their upbringing, and find in each other all that they ever wanted. When their first bouncing happy baby is kidnapped by a troubled young woman in Rhodesia, they find themselves adopting her sickly premature son. Thus begins a life of uncertainty for both Julia and Howard as well as their son Will. Constantly on the move searching for a better job, a better lifestyle, a sense of home, the Laments instead find themselves drifting further and further from each other and from the life they once dreamed of living.

I was impressed by the writing style, and the way characters in the story gradually revealed more and more about themselves as the novel progressed. At heart, I found this a sad book, and was pained by the Laments efforts to create a home for themselves in an ever-changing world. Hagen does a wonderful job of conveying the sense of disconnect that pervades the expat community even today. I highly recommend this debut novel, and must say it reminds me as well of Telex From Cuba which I reviewed a few months ago.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A Thousand Veils by D.J. Murphy

I requested this book from the author because the summary sounded so interesting; it wasn't until later that I realized it was a self-published book. On the one hand, I am surprised that Murphy has been unable to find a publisher as he has the bones of a great story and is obviously able to write. On the other hand, the opening pages alone almost convinced me not to read any further- the description of the sandstorm is as clear an example as I've ever read of overwriting. Thankfully, the use of adjectives calms down as the novel progresses and is never again as distracting as in the opening.

The story here is a compelling one- journalist and poet Fatima Shihabi is forced to flee Iraq when Uday Hussein learns she has been writing subversive articles for foreign press outlets. Fatima, whose family connections saved her once before when her writing led to weeks of imprisonment and torture, escapes Iraq through the desert only to end up in the hands of an unfriendly Saudi officer determined to send her back to her tormenters. When she is allowed a final phone call to her brother Omar in New York, he draws in corporate lawyer Charles Sherman whose contacts in Saudi grant Fatima a reprieve.

As Charles tries to work his contacts to get Fatima asylum in the U.S., they meet in France and fall in love. As Fatima's past rapidly catches up with her, she makes the momentous decision to return to her daughter in Iraq, and Charles decides to accompany her. I won't share to any more details so as to avoid spoilers, but it was at this point that I felt the story began to break down.

I felt the love story between Fatima and Charles was an unnecessary complication, and everything that happened after they returned to Iraq was the kind of unrealistic series of events usually only seen on 24. I felt the adventure aspect of the story was forced, and definitely didn't require the day by day chapter breakdowns. I found the book long, and definitely thought the narrative lagged, especially in the philosophical conversations between Charles and Fatima.

In my opinion, Murphy has a strong storyline in this book, and I am surprised he hasn't made a sale to mainstream publisher. Right now the novel is part adventure story, part love story, part condemnation of U.S. immigration policy, part attempt to bridge the gap between Islam and the West. A strong edit that focused the book around one central message would yield a much tighter book that I think would sell well.

I'm giving this one 3 stars- 3.5 for potential, 2.5 for execution.

Bacon: A Love Story

Allow me to share some wonderful news from one of my crew from college:

You can pre-order Bacon: A Love Story here. Congratulations Heather!

Monday, January 12, 2009

Going to See the Elephant by Rodes Fishburne

Flap copy from ARC:
"Slater Brown lays siege to San Francisco like Achilles circling Troy- until he crashes headlong into reality. Out of money and prospects, he lands a job at a moribund weekly newspaper called the Morning Trumpet- and, as if by fate, is given a very special parting gift from a moonlighting mystic. Suddenly Slater has an exclusive on every story in the city.

With his uncanny knack for finding scoops, he's bringing the Trumpet back to life, infuriating a corrupt mayor, and falling in love with the woman destined to become his muse. But it is the astonishing inventor Milo Magnet- a man obsessed with harnessing the weather- who will force Slater to navigate the most dangerous straits. As storm clouds gather literally overhead, Slater will become at once a pawn, a savior, and the last best hope for a city that needs him- and his knack for the truth- more than ever before."

I wasn't sure what to expect from this book, but it was a delight from start to finish. Slater Brown is an unlikely hero, a writer convinced he could be the world's best writer if only he could get the right works on the page in the right order. He considers himself well-read, though his efforts are limited to the first sentences of great books from which he extrapolates the quality of the rest of the unread work. Despite his many eccentricities, Slater Brown's love for San Francisco, for the rhythms of the city, lend him an unexpectedly endearing quality.

As Slater's writing takes off, he becomes beloved by the citizens of the city he loves- the ultimate reward for any journalist. His optimism in the face of overwhelming odds is a marked contrast to the rest of the staff on his newspaper, but they gradually come to share his positive outlook for the future. When his efforts to please both his love and his readers collide, Slater must face fundamental questions about the core of his being that lead him to uncomfortable answers.

This book is a quirky and interesting coming of age tale. Fishburne is a master storyteller, and I'll certainly be recommending this novel to others. 4.5 stars.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Never Tell a Lie by Hallie Ephron

Flap copy from the ARC:
The perfect couple, Ivy and David have been together since high school. David's business is beginning to take off, they're fixing up a wonderful Victorian house, and after several years of trying, Ivy is about to give birth to their first child. Making a clean sweep in preparation for the big event, they hold a yard sale. And who should turn up but Melinda, a woman neither Ivy nor David has seen in years.

To Ivy's surprise, Melinda begins to reminisce about their days in high school, intimating a close friendship between her and David. Unnerved by the woman's odd behavior, Ivy is relieved when David creates a distraction to draw Melinda away.

What Ivy doesn't know is that the strange encounter is only the beginning of a hellish nightmare of deceit and betrayal.

This is a hard review for me to write. On the one hand, I stayed up into the wee hours reading this book; on the other hand, I guessed the big secret (no, no spoiler here) pretty early on which defeated the "mystery" part of the book. Never Tell a Lie is a quick read, though I thought it got off to a bit of a slow start. Ivy is well-drawn and definitely elicited an emotional reaction; David, Tony, and Melinda were all much more hazy and therefore harder to connect with as a reader.

I thought the mystery unfolded well, with drama building appropriately even though I was certain of the climax. Ephron did a masterful job conveying how slightly off kilter everything appeared to Ivy- understandably off kilter as she is trying to split her focus between a murder investigation and the last few weeks of her high risk pregnancy.

A good solid read, I would recommend Never Tell a Lie to other mystery fans. I'm giving it a 3.5 because I did guess the ending, but would have gone to 4 if the mystery had lasted a couple of chapters longer for me because it was so well written.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Land of Marvels by Barry Unsworth

Flap copy from ARC:
"In Land of Marvels, a thriller set in 1914, [Unsworth] brings to life the schemes and double-dealings of Western nations grappling for a foothold in Mesopotamia in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire.

Somerville, a British archaeologist, is excavating a long-buried Assyrian palace. The site lies directly in the path of a new railroad to Baghdad, and he watches nervously as the construction progresses, threatening to destroy his discovery. The expedition party includes Christine, Somerville's beautiful, bored wife; Patricia, a smart young graduate student; and Jehar, and Arab man-of-all-duties whose subservient manner belies his intelligence and ambitions. Posing as an archaeologist, an American geologist from an oil company arrives one day and insinuates himself into the group. But he's not the only one working undercover to stake a claim on Iraq's rich oil fields."

I chose to read this book because I once dreamed of becoming an archaeologist, and having lived in the region, I was especially interested in the early history of the search for oil. Let me start out by saying that the book is definitely a better read than the flap copy might lead you to believe. The narrative focus on this small group works extremely well, and serves to underscore the myriad of competing interests focused on the region at the time.

Unsworth is a skilled writer, and all of the characters (no matter how unlikeable) are fully drawn and add value to the story. The main problem I had was that I really just couldn't get myself to like any of the characters, despite their backstories. Even when I found their actions completely understandable, I still didn't really feel that invested in the outcomes. In the end, the utter futility of the entire enterprise was crystal clear, lending itself so well to disturbing comparisons to the current situation in Iraq.

This was a solid read, 3.5 stars for me just because I never felt that emotional connection to the characters, and I will certainly look for Unsworth's Booker Prize winning Sacred Hunger to read.

Friday, January 2, 2009

The King's Rose by Alisa M. Libby

Flap Copy from ARC:
"Fifteen-year old Catherine Howard's youth beauty, and noble birth are enough to make her the envy of every woman in Tudor England...and now she has caught the eye of the king.

But life in the court of King Henry VIII is a complex game. Catherine finds herself quickly transformed from a carefree teenager with dreams of romance and riches to queen of England. Even luxury beyond imagination loses its luster as young Catherine finds her life- and her heart- threatened by the needs of an aging king and a family hungry for power. Catherine begins to fear that their agendas will make her a sacrifice on the altar of family ambition, delivering the young queen to the same fate as her infamous cousin, Anne Boleyn."

As someone whose love of history (especially the Tudors) dates back to her early teens, I was really looking forward to reading this book aimed at readers aged 14 and up. I did find the book to be an engaging treatment of the story of Catherine Howard's marriage, especially as she is so often overlooked in favor of her more flamboyant predecessor. The writing was crisp and the pacing of the book was excellent.

I also think Libby did a wonderful job capturing the voice of her 15 year-old protagonist, though I quibble a little with Catherine's naivete in parts. I cannot help but believe that even the most sheltered 15 year-old would have been forced into a greater awareness of political realities in such a tumultuous time. Regardless, Libby made Catherine live, and revealed the pathos of her situation. Even knowing as I did how this story would end, I found myself wishing she would in fact receive a reprieve from her Henry.

Given the complexity of the cast of characters involved in this story, I would like to see a chart or list to help readers less familiar with the subject matter keep track of everyone. I read an ARC, so this oversight may in fact have been rectified during final printing. Also, some readers may be uncomfortable with the sexual component of the story (though it is minor and essential to the story). All in all, a highly recommended read for high schoolers interested in historical fiction.