Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher (5 out of 5)

•November 19, 2014 • Leave a Comment

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This book? Incredibly funny. Also, incredibly short and a quick read. It’s always fun to read a novel made up entirely of letters that tell its plot. I hadn’t read one of those in a long while, until this doozy. I had a lot of fun in the three or so hours it took me to read it. I laughed aloud a number of times. No shortage of reasons why. Another reason I loved this is because it isn’t just letters, like journal entries or letters to the beloved or the bereaved- these are LOR’s. Not familiar with LOR? Letters of Recommendation. Hilarious and original thought there on the part of Ms. Schumacher, and I love it.

This book was released in August of this year. As sometimes happens with those who read far too much, far too fast, and far too distracted, it somehow escaped my notice. Until I went to straighten hardcover fiction at the store and I spotted the title- and then it was instant like. Highly recommended if you have a crap ton going on and seem to be hitting your head on your bookshelves because the books you are reading smell worse than Putin’s false promises. This will change that quickly.

Jay Pitger is professor of creative writing and literature at Payne College, a community college trying hard to be esteemed by others in the academic field. Jay himself is trying hard to be esteemed, but it’s difficult when your department keeps facing cuts left, right, and center field, while other departments somehow manage to survive the cutting edge of educational scissorwork. Jay’s letters of recommendation are to a number of people- from his ex wife to current squeeze (and sometimes forgetting NOT to include the ex-wife on a missive to the current squeeze. OUCH), to fellow colleagues, on behalf of his students, and more hilarious than the rest, on behalf of his star pupil Darren, who’s looking for work and any support that is NOT a rejection letter of his work, a magnum opus (laugh. You will!) called Accountant In A Brothel, which is a take-off of John Melville’s work Bartelby. I dare you to keep a straight face whilst reading those letters in support of his fledging author. It’s impossible! Jay’s life isn’t anything enviable at present time- his job is floundering, his writer career is in ruins (wait until you read the book titles), and there is no romantic life to speak of, unless you count his ex and once-current flame becoming the best of friends because they think he’s insane. Parts of this-I unequivocally understood, agreed with- I am living parts of this! (not the tug of war over the romantic foils, but the lack of a love life in general, and the writing doing squat). This book inspired me to write more letters- even if it’s in email form, or in blog form, or in the shape of a burning pyre of the new Keith Richards’ children’s book display. So not only do you see what makes Jay rush to the defense of others, but you also can sense his frustration at the abyss that is quickly becoming his life as it’s known. Of course, there is some resolution, but it’s not what you would think. And that, my friends, is why Ms. Schumacher’s book is genius. I hope there’s a follow up and that Jay Pitger makes a triumphant return. I will be waiting with bated breath!

The Secrets of Life and Death by Rebecca Alexander (3 out of 5)

•November 19, 2014 • Leave a Comment

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Historical fiction and mystery are two of my favorite genres to read. Together? Usually, it calls out an unbeatable combination that keeps me riveted to the last page. I was not real thrilled with this book, unfortunately.

In modern times, Professor Felix Guichard is called in on the case of a young woman found dead. Her naked body bears occult symbols all over. He meets up with and tries to decipher the second mystery, of a young, tough woman named Jackdaw Hammond. Jackdaw has her share of secrets; namely, she’s a dead woman. Or she was… resurrected by the powerful sources of Magic that keep her alive. But for how long? For the only person who knows Jackdaw’s true story, who has the power to ruin her life as well as put an end to it, wants to reclaim those secrets of Magic and reveal the truth.  Will Jackdaw be alive long enough to help Felix solve the crime? Will she even care if her own existence is being threatened? And for what?

The alternate story begins in Krakow, Poland in the late 1800′s. Dr and Master John Dee and his assistant, Edward Kelley, are summoned by the King of Poland to save the life of the critically ill Countess Elisabeth Balthory. No matter what possible cures and medical means they try to revive her and her livelihood, the two gentleman quickly realize that there is one solution- Magic could save her and bring her back. However, this isn’t your cookie cutter Magic, kids. It’s black Magic, and there are consequences attached. Dire, dark, insurmountable Magic. We dart back and forth between 1865 and present day. As Felix and Jackdaw try to uncover whom is hunting her down, Edward Kelley’s olden diary may hold the keys to uncovering the answers to whom, why, and perhaps, how to escape with her life intact. It may also answer the question of what happened to the Countess.

The action doesn’t go at a breakneck pace, which you are led to think it may, given that Jackdaw’s life is on the line until she and Felix can crack the code of Edward Kelley’s ancient writings. The book sort of ambles on, telling the backstory and lending all sorts of questions that creep up in the unraveling of her story, as well as the dead Countess’ history. It’s slow going, at least it was for me, and that was somewhat unbelievable to me. This should have been a story that unfurled quickly, because time is of the essence. That was my first problem with it.

My second issue was that I really liked the character of Felix; and no matter how I tried, I just couldn’t wrap my arms around Jackdaw. Something about her made me scratch my head. There always seemed to be an ulterior motive with her, when all she should have been concerned about was getting on the stick regarding the diary and thus, some answers would find their way to her. Instead, she seems very impatient throughout much of the book, and I wasn’t very sympathetic to her plight. Those who are overly pushy and know-it-all in matters beyond their intellectual means should step back and let the real professionals- in this case, Felix- do their jobs and get to the bottom of things.

Once the story of the Countess is revealed, some things snap into place, and others just stay there. Motionless does not make for a great read. I give this points for seamlessly tying up the ends that connect the two stories, but I can’t give it more than that, because the main character drove me up a tree and I never relinquished the feeling of wanting to smack Jackdaw in the face with a skillet. Still, once the loose ends are tied up, it’s all very nicely wrapped up with a big bow for the reader. It just didn’t capture my attention throughout and therefore, lost a couple of ratings points with me.

*I received a copy of this book in return for a honest review, from Blogging For Books.*

Shopaholic To The Stars by Sophie Kinsella (2 out of 5)

•November 16, 2014 • 2 Comments

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I really need a Goodreads shelf for “chick lit”.
I also need a reality check on what books I really want to dive into these days.
Sophie Kinsella has always been a “fun, escapist” type author for me. You don’t take her books seriously, you aren’t supposed to. She’s a more fun Helen Fielding, in my opinion. However, the last Shopaholic, while it won some stars for originality in having Becky dealing with something she couldn’t control- pregnancy- I felt hollowed out, like a eaten Chocolate Easter Bunny, when I was done with it. I thought at that time “It’s fine, it’s a light, fun read, and life is tough, so why not?”
Well, I think my reading standards are jumping up into meteorite status or something, because this was fun, but this was torture to get through. I’m not taking anything away from Kinsella, she’s true to all of her characters, but she’s just whittling the same story out of a wooden ship that she has been for all of her previous entries, and I’m bored, bored, bored. Becky’s character needs to be shaken, stirred, staked, and blurred, before she can capture the reader’s whimsy as she used to.
This time around, Becky and Luke are living in Los Angeles, scene of all of Becky’s celebrity crushes, crazy dreams, and the like. Luke is consulting with Sage, a popular celebrity, and so far he is resisting Becky’s pleas to introduce them so Becky can convince Sage to let her do her personal shopping and worse yet, be her “best friend”. The exact formula Becky has used in the past, comes back full circle. Luke is still the same nice guy who isn’t quite sure how to tell his wife she needs to let the celeb fascination go and deal with her life as it is. The best friend Suze, Danny, her friend and gay designer extraordinaire, in previous books so entertaining, fall flat here. Not sure what the hell is up, but not the plot. Before she knows it, Becky’s overtures land her a job doing personal shopping for Sage’s archrival…things get real rocky once Sage realizes this, and of course, Becky’s actions put Luke in an uncomfortable professional quandary. This is nothing new for the character- in almost every single book, she jeopardizes her personal happiness with ill-thought schemes of grandeur, and the poor nice guy pays the price. It’s just really missing something. And it’s not a good something.
Again, Kinsella is not to blame. The characters are genuine, and act as you would expect them to. And that is part of the problem here. I predicted most of what was going to happen, and sadly, it did. There were no surprises, no shake-ups, just a lot of fun reading and predictability. These are books that used to make me laugh at the silliness of the fixes Becky got herself into; now it’s just like reading the same story with a new location and new supporting cast members. Another thing that really bugged the hell out of me is that Becky, being a new mother, should have her daughter Minnie around more, and she seems to be out of sight the entire novel, only as a forethought. Excuse me, that’s your kid! It’s not realistic in that regard either. Luke doesn’t seem to be real concerned about where the hell Minnie is for half of the book, either. What happened to the hearts of these two characters? Luke’s is beating a thousand beats a minute for his Curve IPhone, and Becky, well, if it yields anything near a shopping venue, you have her. I wish Kinsella would jump-start the franchise and bring it back to the glory days it once yielded for this reader.

Gentleman (Afghan Whigs) (33 1/3 series) by Bob Gendron

•November 10, 2014 • Leave a Comment

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I’m a huge Afghan Whigs fan. Still, I hadn’t listened to “Gentleman” by them in a long time. Earlier this year, I realized it did not make it here in my move of three years ago, and I needed to buy it again. I got a good deal on it over at Frugal Muse and settled into listening to it again. Then, “Do To The Beast”, their newest album, was released, and “Gentleman” got a back shelf place for many months.  Then I got to see them for the first time ever at Riot Fest- a week later, I won tickets to see them in Chicago, courtesy of a radio giveaway. That was easily one of the best concerts I have seen in my life- the energy, the smoldering, the blues, the Dulli. Recently, a slew of publicity has crept up surrounding the 21st anniversary of the release of “Gentleman”. The Whigs, currently on tour, did a show in Brooklyn to celebrate, and there is a dandy new stacked-to-the-gills-with extras deluxe edition just released (Christmas is coming). It’s fitting that in one of the articles discussing the release of this new edition and the show to celebrate, that this book was mentioned. I’m a bookstore manager, have been for fifteen years, and I had no idea this existed. I ordered, bought, and sat down on an otherwise shitty day to read this little love song to a great, underappreciated album that truly defined a lot of 90′s angst (no joke).  If you’re a fan of the Whigs or even just Dulli, grab a copy, pour some wine, and sit down for a hell of a read.

This was the first album where Whigs fans got an idea of the extent of the bedroom toys in Greg Dulli’s bag of tricks. Not just a seductive lure to the masses, but a psychological portrait of warfare in love, lust, sadomasochism, power trips, drama, and just about every messed up emotion that one can bring into play when that silly four letter word is involved. I’m a huge Whigs fan and this retelling of their excellent album “Gentleman” made me want to revisit it extensively (I’m more of a “Black Love” worshipee myself, but this, my friends, is where the rivers of Dulli’s soul started to turn red. And you can’t turn away once you hear his story. Brother Woodrow, indeed). I had almost forgotten how he was attacked in a bathroom at an arena the Whigs played in 1998, leaving him with a skull fracture that put him in a coma in a Texas hospital (the story is that the Whigs knocked on the door to be admitted to the venue, and the redneck hombre used a racist term that made Dulli haul off and punch him. The guy doesn’t take shit.). The thing about the 33 1/3 series is that you have a fairly small book detailing one iconic album. I learned a lot from this book, more than I had known. The story of how the cover came to be, what inspired it, and how Linda Ronstandt turned out to be a feminist snob regarding the cover, are all tied up with a neat little bow.  I also learned a lot about chord progression, the songs themselves, how Dulli held five part time jobs while trying to get a record deal, and how he somehow managed to sing six of “Gentleman”‘s most emotionally packed songs while drunk and flying high on coke, with a stripper waiting in the car for him (true story, all). It’s really amazing that the album was made at all, so depressed and overly chemically dependent Dulli was at the time. Then again, as proven with music in past and in present, heartbreak often produces nothing short of brilliance. Certainly the case here, although the advent of grunge guaranteed that the Whigs didn’t chart as high up as they should have, although Dulli and Co. bear no grudges; in fact, one of the more touching parts of the book is the revelation that Cobain gave Dulli and the boys a shot when some other bands would not do so (mainly due to the Whigs NOT being from Washington), and the tribute that Dulli and the Whigs gave Cobain when he passed. That’s something I had never heard of; made me love them even more! Gendron does a great job of maintaining a neutral perspective when examining and observing all facets of the making of the album, as well as before and beyond. As I said, definitely a must read for the obsessive Whig fan (ME), or even the generally interested.  Get it, read it, and turn someone else onto it.

Gone Too Far by Natalie D. Richards (3 out of 5)

•November 10, 2014 • Leave a Comment

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I got a galley of this from Valerie at Sourcebooks. Thanks, Valerie! I wasn’t acquainted with Ms. Richards before this, so this was a good introduction. I liked the premise and needed a quick read, so I gave it a shot.

Piper is the high school photographer for Yearbook and other school events. She hears Stella, a popular girl, being mocked mercilessly, and then an embarrassing video of Stella is distributed and the entire school sees it, shaming her. Shortly after, she is killed when she’s hit by a train on the railroad tracks. Piper has a notebook in her possession that may hold more of the key than she wants to. The notebook is chock full of incidents and wrongs that have been committed by people in the notebook. She realizes that all of the people listed are high school associates (names are written in code, but Piper is a smart cookie and she quickly cracks the code). Things take a weirder turn when someone starts texting her, not only about her having this notebook, but about who is going to “get it” next for their misdeeds. Piper should turn in the phone and the notebook, but she’s angry enough at Jackson and the rest of the football jocks to respond. Yes, she responds, even though she knows it’s wrong and going to get her and others in deep shit. She begins texting back those who piss her off, either by making fun of Stella’s death or just treating people (her, her friends Tacey and Manny, the general populace), and the mystery texter makes bad things happen. Now, when I say that, I don’t mean bad like death- like Stella. What happens to Stella is by far the most violent occurrence, so the author gets that out of the way quickly, and it does actually set up the rest of the plot well. You can’t help but sympathize with Piper, because she’s a good teen and her intentions are pure- the mystery texter and teen vigilante? You think not so much. Of course, it wouldn’t be a young adult novel without some sort of confrontation, and Piper has it in spades with a few of the jock crowd that seems intent on making life hell for not only Piper, but for others who aren’t as “popular” (damn Nada Surf reference!), but she also has a flirtation going with Nick, the seemingly model handsome jock who also seems to have a heart of gold. This development seems a bit cliché, as I have seen it and read it many times before, so I tuned that whole part out. Nick finds out that Piper is in on some of this mayhem and angrily tells her she needs to fess up. So–then there’s the struggle to do right, do wrong, or do Nick. What happens? Is Stella’s death avenged? Does Piper get caught? Who the hell is the mystery vigilante? What happens?

My complaints are few and varied- the relationship with Nick is clichéd. The revelation of the mystery texter and perpetrator? I guessed it halfway through, and I was right. That always kills some part of the book for me. However, despite that sinking feeling that I had guessed it and the reason for it, I was still glued to the book because I wanted to see how it would play out. It is incredibly well written and Piper is a great female teen lead. You hope the best for the girl and her future and whatever punishment she gets for her part in this to be miniscule. I really, really enjoyed the idea of the book and the eventual reveal was pretty darn good, so read it, but don’t be devastated if you guess whodunit.

The Goddess of Small Victories by Yannick Grannec (4 out of 5)

•November 6, 2014 • Leave a Comment

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This one comes courtesy of Jeff at Other Press. Jeff, thank you for sending me the gorgeous copy and the wonderful note, and giving me the chance to read this book. I really, really enjoyed it. Oddly enough, it’s the third book in three weeks that has mathematics as a core part of the plot. Maybe math is the new cool? Ha ha, wouldn’t that be awesome? Anyhow, this book is awesome, and yes, another debut novel. I love discovering new authors. I can’t wait for her next book.

Princeton University in 1980 finds Anna Roth, a young librarian who’s sent to retrieve the papers and records of world renowned mathematician Kurt Godel. Kurt, as written by Grannec, is a reclusive, extremely private, stylish, and somewhat shy man who lives to apply logic and math to everyday life. The only part where his true self shines through is in his courtship and marriage to Adele, the vibrant, polar opposite who ends up being his soul mate, confidante, and wife for the remainder of his life. First, before Anna can get the papers (and hopefully some answers to long asked questions and mysteries, among other things), she has to get past Adele. This may take some doing. Adele’s in a home, not in the greatest health, and in her waning years, has her memories to keep her warm many nights. Relinquishing her beloved’s papers to a young lady who knows nothing of Kurt and his life, passion for math, and passion in general? Unacceptable! Anna finds out that Adele may the toughest nut she has to crack in her young career. Adele’s also hellbent on revenge against the establishment, who she believes just wants the papers so they can steal Kurt’s glory. Anna ends up visiting Adele almost every day, and the women build a cautious, eventually gratifying friendship that brings Adele some relief after her pent-up emotions have gone in check, while also enabling her to relive her glorious memories of her beloved husband. There’s a lot of history covered in this book, too, in Adele’s descriptions of Austria after the occupation by the Nazis, in the birth of nuclear weaponry, and McCarthyism at its best (or worst, depending on your viewpoint). It’s quite a story, not just Kurt’s, but Adele’s before and after Godel enters her life and shakes her foundations.  It’s quite a story, told by quite the heroine, an aging, somewhat bitter and cynical old lady who’s really still more than a little in love with her deceased husband and facing the end of her own, incredible life. I didn’t bond as much with Anna’s character. I felt she was a little immature in her approach to Adele and in hearing the incredible history laid out to her. By the end of the book, when you see that she truly grew to love Adele in her own way, well, then I didn’t want to beat her so much, and I actually learned to like her character a bit more.

What’s not to like about this? Well, not much. I felt that as much as Kurt Godel is a huge part of the plot, I felt like he continued to remain a bit of a mystery, despite Adele’s lucid and all-encompassing story. Adele is so vividly painted, perhaps the quiet mathematician gets shadowed a bit behind her. But really, that’s all the complaining I have, right there. I loved this book. It was incredibly easy to get into, it keeps your attention all the way through, and as Adele’s memories grow stronger as her life begins to fade, your heart breaks for her. Yet it can’t! For she has found the most unlikely friendship of all- with the young librarian sent to get Kurt’s papers for the university. And that friendship bands the strongest part of the book, along with Adele’s reliving of her glorious past, for Anna’s benefit. It’s easy to read, you love Adele, you learn to love Anna, there’s no way in hell you aren’t going to love this book.

The Last Word by Hanif Kureishi (1 out of 5)

•November 5, 2014 • Leave a Comment

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I read and loved Hanif Kureishi’s book The Buddha of Suburbia. I wish I could have said the same was true with The Last Word. I got this as a galley, either from the publisher or as a giveaway.  It’s not out until next year (March 10, 2015, last date I heard), so you have time to plot another book you’d rather read. Regrettably, I won’t recommend this one be it.

Mamoon used to be THE author, back in the day. The way it’s written, you feel as if he had a Salman Rushdie type of cult following, minus the fatwas and bounties, but with all of the critical and groupie praise that follows a writer of such stature. He’s NOT that hot author anymore, he’s in his 70′s, his creativity and eyesight have dried up, and his decades younger wife has her heart set on all of the expensive tastes that Mamoon honestly cannot afford; but he can’t deny her anything. That was my first problem with the book. Someone who has no problem telling everyone else that they’re useless should have no problem putting the brakes on his wife’s extravagant spending, but not to the one who’s bleeding him dry?. The wife? Is a piece of work. Really, really annoying. Another reason it was difficult to build a bridge of any sort with this book. I wanted to beat the hell out of both of them.

Harry’s a young writer who gets the “assignment of a lifetime” (my words and air quotes, done in a sarcastic nature. My words. They are never uttered in the book, although they are hinted at) getting to write the “juicy, no holds barred biography” of Mamoon. This is a move designed to revive some interest in the waning career that used to be hot to the touch, as well as replenish funds in the now defunct bank account that Mamoon’s wife has attached herself to. Harry really wants to get into Mamoon’s head, admiring his writing, his muse, and his career. Rob, the publishing agent, is a worm of a different variety and wants a salacious, naughty book. Mamoon? He has a whole different idea of a memoir planned out, at least that’s what the reader is led to believe. What I got was a whole lot of confused. I was really fucking confused…and then I just straight up stopped giving a crap. The vapid wife, the stubborn old fool Mamoon, and poor Harry caught in the battle of wills.

You’re led to believe that it’s also a book about the question of your past, youthful indiscretions and the like, and how it affects your current and future life (lives). Well, the way that Mamoon and the Missus behave makes you believe that stuck-up, self-centered creative types really just care more about the money and the adoration that comes with it, not really about fine-tuning your craft and your passion and getting joy out of it. Those of us who write and really give a rat’s ass- well, if you read this book, it will make you see red. Not the “I Saw Red’ by Warrant type of fury, but close (if YOU had to listen to “I Saw Red” by Warrant, you, too, would be angry). It does start off great, but oh boy, the swamp waters rise up quickly to consume the reader, and in this case, you don’t mind choking on swamp water, running into gators, or water moccasins, because it’s got to be better than reading this drivel. If you want to read Kureishi, read The Buddha of Suburbia. That’s a winner. This is swamp gator dinner.

 
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