Saturday, April 28, 2012

Reading Off The Shelves: Serving Crazy With Curry

I am still working on those overflowing bookshelves!  This book I've had for at least 2 years gathering dust on the shelves  (have you ever tried to dust books?  It's pretty darn near impossible!).  The other night I was restless with what I was reading, so I grabbed this and began to read.

I was disappointed.  The main character, Devi is a young woman who's been laid off her job in Silicon Valley, and decides she's had it--and proceeds to slit her wrists in the bathtub.

Her mother, Saroj has used her key to enter Devi's place and finds her in the tub, still alive.  After a stint in the hospital, where Devi decides she's not going to talk, she ends up staying with her parents--her mother, Saroj is a traditional Indian wife, her father Avi, a retired successful business owner, and her grandmother, Vasu who's visiting for a few months from India.  Vasu is an interesting character--she's a retired doctor, a divorcee, and had a long term affair with a married man in India.  Her "I don't owe anyone any explanation" attitude has created a lot of tension between her and her daughter, Saroj.  Saroj feels her mother never loved her and never has adequately explained why she divorced her father.   Add into that mess the fact that Saroj's father committed suicide shortly after the divorce (when Saroj was five years old), and you've got a complex mess of issues between mother and daughter.  

And there's Davi's sister, Shobha.  She's a successful Vice-President of a company, has a husband who's a Stanford professor, and seems to have it all.  But she doesn't.  She cannot have children, and she entered an arranged marriage.  Shobha and her husband, Girish, are terribly unhappy and it's slowly making both of them toxic and bitter.  

This family is a mess.  I couldn't find any redeeming qualities in any of the characters.  Each person was so unhappy, and couldn't seem to find a way out of their misery until the very end of the novel.  Until then, it was just a bunch of unhappy people feeling trapped when all it took was making a decision and acting on it.  The issue of culture was a large part of their inaction, but I didn't feel like this was a good enough excuse to stay so miserable for so long.  I finished this book not feeling satisfied with the decisions they all made at the end.  I thought "Geez, it's about time you got your shit together, people!"  

My rating:  2/5; felt that the reasons for not taking action weren't strong enough to stay in such unhappy situations for so long and I didn't like any of the characters.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Midwife Of Venice by Roberta Rich

I always enjoy reading a novel where a woman is given a chance to show just how strong she is in spirit; shows a remarkable bit of resourcefulness, and enough courage that you have to wonder why anyone would ever think she was "weak".  

Hannah is just this woman in The Midwife of Venice by Roberta Rich.  It takes place in Venice in 1575.  Jews have fled other parts of Europe and settled in ghettos around Venice.  They were still treated horribly by Christians in Venice, but had some bit of peace.  Hannah lived in the ghetto with her husband, Isaac.  She's a midwife, and is greatly skilled for one so young.  She's got a secret weapon:  birthing spoons she designed to help bring a baby out of the womb.  They're the equivalent of forceps in today's world.  But in 1575, they were thought to be the work of the devil, and if Hannah was ever caught with them, she would be accused of witchcraft.

Isaac's story is told in alternating chapters with Hannah's.  Isaac has set sail to sell goods, but instead his ship was captured and he's a slave on Malta, with only a slim chance of ever getting back to Hannah and Venice.  Hannah knows he's there, thanks to a Jewish society that works to ransom captive Jews in Malta.  The only question is:  can he survive long enough to get home?  Meanwhile, Hannah is called upon late one night to help a noble Christian woman give birth.  She's perilously close to death, and the Comte has come to beg her to help save the child.  It's his only chance to keep all of his wealth before he turns 50 in a few short months.  Jews are forbidden to attend Christian women's birth beds, so Hannah is caught in a dilemma:  Should she break with her Jewish laws--and the laws of Venice--and help this woman?  The Comte will pay her enough money so she can ransom her husband.  It's her only way to free Isaac.  But in agreeing to help the Comte, she is putting the whole Jewish ghetto at risk.  If the Comte's wife dies, along with the child, Hannah and her community will surely be punished.  

This is a quick read, but chock full of historical facts and fascinating scenes from a Venice that is both beautiful and rotten.  The smells of the canals, the stench of the plague, and the simple smell of a newborn baby all combine to weave a rich picture of a fascinating time in Jewish history.  Can Hannah make the right decision?  Will Isaac survive long enough to escape Malta?  Hannah's decisions will alter the course of her life, and set her on a journey fraught with danger and a lot of tense moments.  I really liked Hannah.  She went from a young  woman all alone and lost without her husband, to a courageous woman ready to fight for herself and her husband.  An admirable character, indeed.

This book is great for any Mom or Grandma who likes historical fiction.  I enjoyed reading about Venice in 1575; it was a refreshing change from some of the historical novels I've been reading.  And the rituals of Judaism were also so very interesting to read about--they really did make Hannah's decisions crucial to her well being and her unwavering faith in God.  

Rating:  4/5 .  Quick pace, very likable heroine, and great atmosphere.  

Thanks to Melissa at Simon and Schuster for sending me this book.  It was on my "to be read" list.  

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

World Book Night/Day 2012 Experience

Yesterday was World Book Night 2012 and it was so much fun to hand out books to people for free to promote a love of reading and to show support for libraries and bookstores around the US.  It started last year in the UK and Ireland for the first World Book Night, and this year the US was involved.  The response from people across the US was overwhelming!  Over 25,000 people handed out 500,000 books across the country to strangers to encourage a rediscovery of reading.  And the books were great!  30 different titles from so many publishers: The Stand, Peace Like a River, Little Bee, Ender's Game, The Book Thief, Because of Winn-Dixie,  and so many more excellent titles in a wide range of subjects.  To see the list, hit the World Book Night website.  Maybe you can set a goal to read them all before next year's grand event.  

This is how it worked:  you applied to be a "Giver" on the WBN website, and picked three titles you would like to hand out.  The WBN people confirmed you as a giver, and told you which book you would be handing out.  Each Giver received 20 copies of their book and picked them up at predetermined sites in their city.  My B&N was one of the pick up sites, and many independent bookstores and libraries across the US were also pick up sites.  So many places had Giver receptions and fun parties to celebrate this event.  My store had about 10 Givers pick up their boxes last Monday night, and they stayed to eat snacks and talk about why they picked their book and where they were going to hand them out.  We had one woman planning on standing in front of a local grocery store to hand them out, another was a school librarian who was going to hand them out at school.  Another Giver was teaming up with her daughter to hand them out to her daughter's friends, and another was handing them out to patients at a dialysis unit in one of our local hospitals.  So many great ideas!

So yesterday was the big day.  I had to work last night, so I had to give out my books during the day.  And what better place to hand out The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie than a local alternative high school here in Cedar Rapids.  Even better--a fellow co-worker had also picked that book, so we had 40 copies to give away to the students at Metro.  We went to Metro on their lunch break and walked around with one of the teachers while she pointed out kids she knew would love to have a copy of their own.  Many of the kids had already read the book, but were thrilled to have a copy to keep.  

Our first two recipients

"Pizza and a book!"

Fellow bookseller Kara, Me, and Mary from Metro School

The looks on their faces were priceless.  Many said "That is so cool!  I get to keep this?"  It was especially gratifying to give to these kids because so many are from troubled homes and attend Metro because it's the only place for them to finish high school.  I told them how many people across the US were giving out books, and that in our hometown of Cedar Rapids, there were 1,000 books being given away.  Yes, Cedar Rapids was one of the top 25 Giver Cities.  We are so proud of that--and this is mainly due to the extreme effort our CRM Amanda made to get the word out not only to our staff, but to customers and everyone she could find.  

Last night at our store we had a reception for Givers to come back and tell us about their experiences.  We didn't have much of a crowd, but those who came were glowing from their experience as a Giver.  Amanda and our manager, Diane, drove around to car dealerships and gave away books; Diane even stopped people on the street to hand out books.  Another employee was heading home to his apartment complex to hand out Ender's Game to fellow apartment dwellers.  A part time bookseller took a long lunch from her other job and drove to fire stations to gift books.  Jessica, another part time bookseller, was heading to the police department with her novels to hand out to the late shift staff.

What can I say?  I am surrounded by books every day I work.  I am a lucky person to be around something I love so much all the time.  It was a joy to be able to walk up to a person and say "It's World Book Night/Day!  Here's a book for you."  No expectations, no catch.  Just a free book.  No "I can get it cheaper online." No "I can only buy one book today."  No "My kid has to read a book for school and hates to read.  What do you suggest?"  None of that.  Just pure fun.  

If you would like to be a Giver next year, visit the World Book Night website and sign up for their newsletter.  I will definitely apply to be a Giver again in 2013!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Reading Log Jam

Found it here
This is my current state of reading.  Log Jam Central.  Except I'm not standing on the logs, I am underneath them. Arrgh!!  Still winding my way through 10,000 years of English history in Sarum, working on the latest spooktacular novel in the Amelia Grey Series, and trying really hard to get into Katherine Howe's newest novel The House of Velvet and Glass.  I am trying to figure out just where this story is heading, but it's not captivating me enough to be relentless about it.  

And the books awaiting to be read are also overwhelming.  I have another book talk lined up in early May for a retirement home here in town.  I've talked there before (usually every 6 weeks or so) and they like particular books, so I'm working on reading a few titles I know they would like.  Plus I have a book to read and comment on for the B&N Recommends Program (due by May 4th) and the lovely Melissa at S&S sent me a copy of The Midwife of Venice by Roberta Rich to read and review by Mother's Day.  Phew.  A lot on my plate--and life is interrupting my reading time and starting to make me slightly crabby.  Why, oh why can't I operate on 4 hours of sleep every night?  I could get so much more done.  

My bright spot this week is meeting a friend today after work to talk about books. We truly are two book nerds who will babble on and on about what we want to read, what we're reading, and what the other should read.  

Let's hope this weekend finds me sitting on my tushy and reading a bit.  This is, of course, after running, working in the yard, and running errands.  

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Cottage at Glass Beach by Heather Barbieri

Every once in awhile, this land-locked woman likes to read about the mysterious, magical sea.  Any sea will do, really.  They're all capable of generating a feeling of the unknown--somehow in their depths there's a whole unexplored world of mystical places, people, and beings.  

Can you tell I liked to read about the ocean when I was a kid?  And even now, still living in a land-locked state, I find it all fascinating.  My favorite book growing up was Pagoo by Holling Clancy Holling.  It's about the life of a hermit crab, and I would spend many afternoons at the school library pouring over the illustrations.  I now own a copy, and it's one of my favorite books.  It almost sent me on a career path into marine biology--but my absolute terror of deep water put a stop to that.  

How does this rambling story of my childhood book tie in with The Cottage at Glass Beach?  Well, it's that darn ocean--this time, the Atlantic.  And tidal pools.  Nora returns to Burke's Island off the coast of Maine where she was born and spent her early years in order to escape the scandal of her husband--a powerful attorney in Boston--having an affair.  She returns to stay in the small cottage where she lived with her parents before her mother disappeared into the ocean when Nora was 7 years old, leaving Nora with fuzzy memories of what exactly happened, and a father who was so heartbroken he took them away from the island and whispers of the townspeople.

Nora returns with her two daughters, Ella and Annie.  Ella is a typical tween--full of resentment and anger at her parent's separation and plotting to get her parents together again.  Nora's Aunt Maire lives in a house not far from the cottage, and their reconnection is a major part of the novel.  Maire is full of stories of her youth with Nora's mother Maeve, who was startlingly beautiful and the island siren to all the men.  Rumors floated about that Maeve was actually a selkie--a seal that becomes human when it falls in love, and lives on land until it must eventually return to the sea.  

It sounds kinda crazy, but the author does manage to write this novel in such a way that it is believable that Nora's mother was a magical creature of the sea.  And then there's Owen, a man Nora finds washed up on shore one night during a fierce storm.  Who is he, and where is he from?  He's lost his memory, so he stays in a little shack by the shore, spending his days fishing and doing odd jobs for Maire.  Was he sent to help Nora heal her heart?  

I really did enjoy this novel, although there are a few threads left dangling that I wish had been resolved.  I can understand why the author ended the story where she did, but at the same time perhaps an epilogue would have given a more satisfying conclusion to Nora's story.  Other than that, I was sucked into the visions in my head of a lovely home on the coast, surrounded by gardens,  the ever present ocean, and the tidal pools Annie and Ella explore.  It didn't take me long to begin wishing for a trip to either coast of the US.  Lakes have their own magical feel, but the ocean...well...it's a different bird all together.  

The Cottage at Glass Beach will be released in May in hardcover and also available as an E-book.  This would obviously be a good vacation read--especially if you're heading to an ocean near you.  I would suggest this for fans of Alice Hoffman and Sarah Addison Allen.  

As for me, I'm going to take Pagoo  down from the bookcase and look through it again.  

Rating:  3/5:  Enjoyable characters, magical element to the ocean and the island.  Would have liked a more finished ending, but can live with some unanswered questions.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Ghost on Black Mountain by Ann Hite

Another Book Off The Shelves!  Ah, I bought this last year, and promptly left it on my bookcase.  A book that patiently waited until I had time to read it.

I so wish I had read it right away.  I loved this one.  Yes, I love a lot of books, but this was a very entertaining read about Black Mountain, Nellie, and Hobbs.

It's 1938, and Nellie lives in Asheville, NC with her widowed mother. Nellie meets Hobbs at a soup kitchen where she's working, and instantly is attracted to Hobbs.

Hobbs is a nasty man.  Charming to few, hated by many.  He marries Nellie in a whirlwind courtship and soon drags her up Black Mountain to live in his old home.

This home has ghosts.  Hobbs is a bad man.  Did I say that already?
Black Mountain is full of "haints":  a little girl with roses in her hair, a young red-headed woman who warns Nellie about Hobbs, and the government worker Hocket who watches the house from the woods.  All are stuck on Black Mountain, wandering the roads and woods.  Nellie sees them all--and Hocket is bent on revenge.  Hobbs makes moonshine and isn't afraid to kill anyone who stands in his way.

Nellie's story winds its way through her first few months of marriage, as Hobbs leaves her home for weeks at a time with no company except Hobb's stepmother--yep, she's another ghost.  She's warning Nellie to get off the mountain, sure Hobbs will destroy Nellie's life and soon.

This story moves forward through the 40's and 50's, as Nellie makes a life-altering decision, and the consequences echo across Black Mountain and into the lives of others who knew Hobbs.

This was a great read!  Atmospheric, beautifully written, and a well-woven story with many strands that lead back to each other.  I enjoy reading my Southern stories, and this is one  author that I will read again.

I would recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys reading about the South---particularly the early 20th century (around WW 2), the culture of mountain living, and stories about "haints".  It's also a story about strong women making the best out of what they have--sometimes making difficult choices--to protect their daughters from making the same mistakes.

Rating:  4/5 for good writing and a great story!