Sunday, May 31, 2009

Book Review: Do-Over! by Robin Hemley

Do-Over! by Robin Hemley

Published by Little, Brown and Company , a division of Hachette Book Group

Rating: 4.5 stars

This book is about precisely what its sub-titles states: "In which a forty-eight-year-old father of three returns to kindergarten, summer camp, the prom, and other embarrassments". Robin Hemley decides to re-visit his past of embarassing and shameful moments so that he can 're-do' them all over again with the additional benefit of perspective and wisdom from decades of life experience. Given the strange nature of his adventures, (what other kindergarten student has their wife pick them up from school?) Robin receives some interesting feedback from his fellow classmates, campers, and teachers. Thankfully though, for the most part Robin is supported in his quest and given ample opportunity to improve upon his past 'failures'.

I think that what initially started out as a unique opportunity for Robin's self-exploration and journey to his past, transformed into an experience that has proved insightful to many others as well. Though this book is focused on Robin's past, it can easily be translated to anyone with regrets or those who wonder what would happen if they could 're-do' a past experience. The book's idea and writing style, along with witty humor, reminded me a lot of A. J. Jacobs' work, including The Year of Living Biblically, which was a plus for me.

I only wish that each chapter could have been a little longer so that I could have read more about each experience. In particular, my favorite do-over by far, the kindergarten chapter seemed to go by too quickly. I longed to hear more of the dialogue exchanged between Robin and the children, who seemed to conclude that Robin had a 'bad time' when he was a kid and he wanted to back so he could have a 'better time'.

Though not many would jump at the chance to re-do experiences that humiliated them in the past, there is a fascination with someone who would have the courage to do so and share his experiences with everyone (photographs included!). It is often other people's reactions to Robin's endeavor that were most interesting to me and were also able to elicit the most laughter.

The underlying self-deprecative attitude translates into a humorous book where a grown-man can poke fun at himself while re-living past embarassments and come out a little wiser and insightful than he started out in the beginning. Do-Over! is not only a hilarious journey of flashbacks and re-dos, but also insightful in its implications and I certainly enjoyed accompanying Robin on his trip down memory lane.

BIG THANKS to Anna and Hachette Book Group for my review copy

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Book Review: Angels of Destruction by Keith Donohue

Angels of Destruction by Keith Donohue

Published by Shaye Areheart Books

Rating: 4.5 stars

The books begins with a late-night knock on Margaret Quinn's door, which is highly unusual for a window living alone. The mysterious visitor is a young girl who claims to be an orphan with nowhere to stay. Ten years earlier, Margaret's own daughter, Erica, ran away with a radical cult-like group known as the Angels of Destruction and she has never seen her again. In an effort to reclaim the daughter she once lost and fill the void in her heart, Margaret takes in the little girl and presents her to the town as her granddaughter, Norah Quinn. Norah befriends a neighborhood boy nameds Sean Fallon, and together they find companionship until Norah's magical abilities threaten their security. Throughout the book, a mysterious figure haunts the characters and elements of magical realism fill its pages.

Angels of Destruction begins in the present and describes Margaret's re-awakening once the mysterious girl enters her life and only briefly refers to her runaway daughter through her memories. I enjoyed the second part of the book being told from Erica's perspective and getting into her psyche in order top find out what would possess someone to leave their life behind and never return. As more secrets are revealed, the book increases in intensity and I found myself amazed by what was transpiring.

I am particularly fond of books that incorporate magical realism into the stories, such as in books by Alice Hoffman and Sarah Addison Allen. In this book, the mystical elements had both uplifting and morose connotations which I found especially intriguing. Not only are the events in the book magical, but the writing itself felt like it had a magical quality to it as well.

Although some lingering questions remain after the book has ended, I really like the way things tie in together in the book's conclusion, offering the closure I was waiting for all along.

This wonderfully written book captured my interest until the very end and left me missing the characters once it was over.

BIG THANKS to Random House for my review copy.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Early Birds Blog Tour: Mating Rituals of the North American WASP by Lauren Lipton

Publisher's description of the book:

After arguing with her live-in boyfriend about his inability to commit, Peggy Adams flies to a friend's bachelorette party in Las Vegas, and wakes up next to a man she can't remember. Hung-over and miserable, she sneaks out of the sleeping man's hotel room and returns home to New York, where her boyfriend apologizes for the fight and gives her a Tiffany box containing a pre-engagement ring. Not what she expected, but close enough! The next day she receives a phone call from the Las Vegas one-night stand, Luke, claiming she's already married to him¬-and he faxes her the license for proof! Both are ready for an annulment, until Peggy arrives in quaint New Nineveh, CT, where Luke cares for his Great Aunt, and the old woman makes Peggy an offer she can't refuse.

My review:

This book satisfies all the criteria for a great beach read: light, funny and a satisfying ending despite its predictability. I really liked reading about the world of "WASPs" and the challenges Peggy faces when trying to fit in with them. It was almost like reading about a completely different culture, with the specific clothing, behavior and "mating rituals".

Eventually Peggy's New York City life during the week starts to collide with her Conneticut weekend life and of course things get complicated. Life never turns out as we expect it to and in this book a chance enounter proves to be a life-altering experience. Though the plot is pretty unrealistic, it's still fun to read about what's going to happen next.

About the author:

Lauren Lipton is a journalist who specializes in lifestyle, business, fashion, and trend stories. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Conde Nast Portfolio, In Style Weddings, Martha Stewart Weddings, Forbes Woman, Glamour, Marie Claire, and on National Public Radio's All Things Considered. She lives in New York City and in Litchfield County, Connecticut.

BIG THANKS to Miriam for arranging this wonderful tour and Hachette for my review copy.

There are many other wonderful blogs featuring reviews today of this book as part of the Early Birds Blog Tours:

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Book Review: Who Do You Think You Are? by Alyse Myers

Who Do You Think You Are? by Alyse Myers

Published by Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster

Rating: 4 stars

This book is Alyse Myers' memoir about the difficult relationship she had with her mother and how that has affected her life in both negative and positive ways. Her parents had an unhappy marriage which further exacerbated the situation, until her father passed away when she was only eleven years old. From them on, Alyse felt like she was on her own because she was 'daddy's little girl' and couldn't relate to her sisters and certainly not to her mother. Alyse was unfairly treated for years and forced to suffer her mother's constant criticism, such as calling her a snob and asking her, "Who do you think you are?" all of the time. Finally one day when she had saved up enough money, she finally moved out and started to forge her own life and identity away from the clutches of her overbearing mother. It was only after the birth of Alyse's own daughter that she finally was able to see her mother for more than her past behavior.

Surprisingly enough, despite the emotionally charged subject matter, this book didn't leave me feeling overwhelmed. Of course, I was outraged at times by Ms. Myers' mother's appalling behavior, but as she was telling her stories, Ms. Myers' maturity and growth was apparent. There was almost a detachment between what she had experienced and where she is now because of how well her life has turned out. I could sense the forgiveness in her words and the path towards reconciliation beginning to develop.

Thankfully, this book is not bogged down by too much detail or unneccesary information. I enjoyed its conciseness and Ms. Myers' ability to hone in on the most salient and relevant chapters in her life that helped provide me with the complete picture, no more and no less.

My favorite part of the book is once Ms. Myers has a daughter of her own. She deeply feared that history would repeat itself and she would have a similar relationship with her daughter as the one she'd had with her mother. However, it was probably for the best that she did have a daughter because she was able to right the wrongs of the past and pave the way towards a better future for her family. I would have liked to have read a little more though about her relationship with her daughter and perhaps her daughter's reactions to what she went through as a child.

It took courage to come out and admit that she hadn't felt the love for her mother that society views as a prerequisite and frowns upon negative mother-daughter relationships. I'm glad that Ms. Myers overcame her tumultuous relationship with her mother and gained enough insight from it to raise a daughter of her own and to have a strong relationship with her.

Ms. Myers recently appeared on The View - to watch a clip scroll down this webpage!

BIG THANKS to Julie of FSB Associates for my review copy

Monday, May 25, 2009

Book Review: The Get Organized ANSWER BOOK by Jamie Novak

The Get Organized ANSWER BOOK by Jamie Novak

Published by Sourcebooks, Inc.

Rating: 5 stars

The Get Organized ANSWER BOOK features hands-on and practical answers to 275 of your most common questions about how to de-clutter your home and your life, as well as some questions you haven't even thought to ask. This book is part of the ANSWER BOOK series from Sourcebooks, which also includes other books about many other topics such as new baby, autism, and living gluten-free.

Since this book is presented in a Q & A format - my review will do the same!

Q: Who is Jamie Novak?

A: The book's author, Jamie Novak, is a professional organizer and clutter coach, who is known as "The World's Most Relatable Organizer™". She has been a featured organizer on HGTV and has written many articles for popular magazines. Plus, she has a great sense of humor - check out her article from Everyday with Rachel Ray.

Q: What topics does this book cover?

A: The following is the table of contents that outlines the book's main topics.

Chapter 1: Behind the Scenes Q&A
Chapter 2: Getting Started
Chapter 3: Organizing 101
Chapter 4: Everyday Stuff
Chapter 5: Paper
Chapter 6: Storage
Chapter 7: Kitchen
Chapter 8: Kids
Chapter 9: Out-of-the-Ordinary Times
Chapter 10: Work and Home Office
Chapter 11: Getting It All Done
Chapter 12: Simply Green Organizing
Chapter 13: Real Moments—Specific Organizing Questions

Q: What are some specific questions that the book answers?

A: Here are some examples from the book:

What should be put through a shredder instead of thrown away?
What can I do to make my desk setup more efficient?
How can I locate and organize an aging parent's important belongings?
What are the root causes of disorganization?
Free items or items on sale aren't really clutter, are they?
How can I spend less time running errands?

Q: What are some of the great features of this book?

A: Since the book follows a question and answer format, it's very clear and concise. It's an extremely useful resource that can be picked up at any time and consulted. It's also relatively small in size so it doesn't create more clutter, without compromising any information. If you don't have the time to read longer organization books, then this is one is perfect because the answers are rarely more than a page long because they get straight to the point! I also loved the inclusion of useful references and websites to consult for further information, as well as lists of charities and places where excess clutter can be recycled.

Q: Would I recommend this book?

A: Definitely! This book can be useful even for people who consider themselves very organized. There is always more to learn when it comes to quick tips and organizational skills.

BIG THANKS to Emily and Sourcebooks for my review copy

Sunday, May 24, 2009

AudioBook Review: Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman

Undress me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman (read by the author)

Published by Hachette Audio

Rating: 4.5 stars

Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven chronicles Susan and her friend Claire's impulsive decision to travel the world after graduating Brown University. The story follows them throughout China as they meet new people, try new foods and explore a country that has since experienced a huge transformation. It is a chance to hear about how China used to be and at the end of the story, to hear how much it has changed.

This story itself is so interesting and at times, truly mesmerizing. I loved the descriptions of the beautiful scenery and the exciting adventures Susan and Claire experienced. It was wonderful hearing about all the unique people they met along the way and about the warm hospitality they often received in each destination. The narrative does not, however, shy away from describing the difficult times as well, especially when things take a turn for the worst. This story did not follow the path that I was expecting it to take, however hearing the author's explanations helped me understand why she felt she needed to document this journey. It is clear that Susan Jane Gilman went through a lot on this trip and it no wonder why it is only 20 years later that she decided to revisit this experience from her past.

This was actually my first time listening to an audiobook! Although I'm not sure how different my experience with this story would've been had I read it instead, I really enjoyed having the author herself read the audiobook, which probably made all the difference because its a memoir. Since this book in particular, features many foreign accents (Chinese, German ... etc.) it was a lot of fun hearing Susan putting on those accents since she happens to be pretty talented at it!

Another wonderful bonus of the audiobook is the interview that I heard at the end with Susan Jane Gilman discussing her book and the motivation for its conception which clarified things a great deal for me. For example, she discussed how most travelogues and travel memoirs only focus on the positive aspects of travel and always end happily. The problem with these books is that sometimes it appears that Americans (or perhaps more generally, "Westerners") have symbolically conquered these foreign countries and triumphed against language and cultural barriers, which is often unrealistic. Ms. Gilman wanted to show that we are not always as invincible as we think and there are important cultural differences in this world that should be respected. Not every ending is a happy one but despite all the pain and difficulties that both Susan and Claire encountered, lessons were learned and Susan can attest to her own growth and maturity that she developed as a result.

BIG THANKS to Anna and Hachette for my review copy

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Book Review: A Girl's Guide to Modern European Philosophy by Charlotte Greig

A Girl's Guide to Modern European Philosophy by Charlotte Greig

Published by Other Press, a subsidiary of Random House

Rating: 4 stars

The story takes place in the 1970s and Susannah is living with her boyfriend Jason, who also happens to be ten years older than her. Though she isn't completely convinced that Jason is "the one", Susannah appreciates the security that comes with an older man. After starting up a fling with her tutorial partner, Rob, Susannah finds herself confused and torn between two men and two different lifestyles. The fact that she has gotten herself pregnant also doesn't seem to be helping and she is forced to confront her problems and hopefully overcome them.

What was becomes evident almost immediately at the start of the book is how the reader is instantly transported into 1970s university life, so much so that I could easily envision the plot unfolding in that environment (even though I wasn't born yet during those years).

Since Susannah is a philosophy major, the narrative strives to incorporate modern philosophy into its plot development by way of teaching Susannah. I'm not convinced that the use of philosophy was successful in conveying the story's messages or imparting much wisdom for Susannah, but nonetheless it was interesting to read about it, even if it didn't add much to the story for me.

As a main character, Susannah leaves a lot to be desired at first, from her poor judgment and impulsive decisions to the way she justified every indiscretion. Although her behavior could be deemed 'realistic', I found it hard to identify with her profound lack of maturity and the way she handled herself. While I didn't find myself feeling particularly sympathetic towards Susannah in the beginning, I began warming up to her and truly sensed her character development when faced with a really difficult dilemma. I felt the need to read about what path she would take and how she would justify the choice to herself in the end became important to me.

Throughout the book, there are issues of infidelity and morality that come into play and more concretely the topic of abortion. I liked that the author never argued in favor of a particular viewpoint, but instead presented arguments for both and Susannah's ultimate decision didn't seem like it was intended to make a political or moral statement. The book's overall conclusion offers a positive message and also provides some interesting food for thought.

BIG THANKS to Tony of BlueDot Literary, LLC and Other Press for my review copy

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Book Review: Breathers: A Zombie's Lament by S.G. Browne

Published by Broadway Books, a division of Random House

Rating: 4.5 stars

I received this book through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program

Though zombies have been roaming the earth for years, they have yet to receive the rights and proper treatment they deserve, at least according to them. Andy Warner is a recent addition to the undead, and is trying to cope with his new 'lifestyle' as a zombie. He is currently living in his parents house, despite their disdain for his zombie status and is a member of Undead Anonymous, where he meets fellow zombies and makes friends. When the group starts eating mysterious meat provided by another zombie, drastic changes take hold of them and their destiny is altered.

I can definitely see why I received this book. I love humor books, especially off-beat ones that have elements of satire embedded throughout, such as the work of Christopher Moore and Chuck Palahniuk. Breathers is every bit as funny as I would have expected and had numerous pop culture references, making it current and very witty.

Just a little warning: Breathers is not for everyone. Some parts made me a little queezy, so if let's say the thought of someone chopping up his parents and eating them as a main course makes you feel a little sick then beware! I could have managed fine without certain unneccesary descriptions and I don't think the plot would have suffered either. Having said that though, most of the book is not gory or too graphic. In fact, a lot of it feels more like a romantic comedy then a horror. I read that the book will likely be made into a movie, which I think would ve very interesting to see!

This book does surprisingly go deeper than you would think. Much of the beginning is a satirical account of discrimination that could easily be substituted for the rights that women and other discriminated members of society have had to face throughout history (except that these zombies are undead, reak of formaldehyde and hang out in cemetaries). Another funny part of the book is a parody of the media circus we now know of that creates instant overnight celebrities. There are also issues of morality that come into play and though they're not particularly resolved, I still found them interesting to contemplate within such a hilarious context.

Breathers will make you root for the undead and join in the vilification of all those who are 'alive' , despite being one of them. Though this book will not suit everyone's taste, for those who enjoy off-beat humor and satire, this is an excellent choice!

BIG THANKS to Random House and LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program for my review copy

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Book Review: The Toss of a Lemon by Padma Viswanathan

The Toss of a Lemon by Padma Viswanathan

Published by Random House Canada

Rating: 4 stars

The book begins in the year 1896, with ten-year old Sivakami, who is arranged to be married to the local village healer named Hanumarathnam. Despite astrological predictions that he will pass away in his tenth year of marriage, Sivakami marries him and soon enough finds herself with two children. After Hanumarathnam realizes that his death is imminent as was originally predicted, he hires a servant to watch over Sivakami and help run the household and business. As Sivakami's children get older and start families of their own, the book chronicles all of their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren's journeys into the modern era confronting issues of religion, tradition, family, loss and love.

The Toss of a Lemon provides an excellent historical background and overview of many cultural customs and the way they influence daily life in India. It is clear that the author did a tremendous amount of research and I was not surprised to discover that many of the characters are based on her own ancestry.

This book is a very detailed account of many generations and is quite lengthy. As such, there are times when some patience is required in order to read further. It is an excellent character study for all of those depicted but keep in mind it is not plot-driven at all. This is not a book that is filled with plot twists and suspense, but rather one that delicately weaves together the lives of many generations. What this book offers that many others don't is a chance to really get to know characters and their whole family history and future, instead of just a slice of their lives. In that sense, I really appreciated the narrative and its details, even though some of it felt a little tedious. During those times, it was the beautiful writing that kept me reading and kept me intrigued.

Padma Viswanathan's strength definitely lies in her ability to breathe life into each character and give the impression that these are real people. That talent is what helped me become invested in the lives of even the most unlikable characters throughout the book.

For anyone who enjoys reading about family sagas and following characters throughout many generations then this is the perfect book. What it lacks in emotional buildup and complex plot structure, it makes up for in character development and intriguing description.

BIG THANKS to Jessica and Random House Canada for my review copy

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Reunion by Therese Fowler

Reunion by Therese Fowler

Published by Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc.

About the book:

Celebrity talk show host Blue Reynolds is the queen of daytime television—she is smart, funny, and as down-to-earth as her adoring fans. In the eyes of the world, she has it all. But no one knows about the secret she has harbored for the last twenty years—a secret that could destroy her image, her reputation, and her career. Twenty years ago, she gave birth to a son and put him up for adoption through illegal channels. And every day since, she’s been filled with regret. Now Blue has hired a private investigator to find her son, knowing full well the consequences.

A week in Key West to do her show on location brings Blue a much-needed change of pace—and an unexpected reunion with an old flame, Mitch Forrester. Helping him launch a television series may help her recapture the kind of genuine romance and affection long missing from her life. But it also means having to deal with Mitch’s disapproving son, Julian, who is only nine years younger than Blue. Emotionally battered from his years as a war photographer in the world’s most dangerous hotspots, Julian struggles to get close to his father while making his disdain for Blue crystal clear—which makes his desire for her all the more shocking.

My review:

Reunion is a definitely a quick and light read. That is not to say that there is no depth to the plot or characters, but rather there is an ease about the writing that kept me reading. Blue's difficult decision to put her son up for adoption many years ago still haunts her and parts of the book focus on her struggle and coming to terms with that choice. That aspect of the plot is what drew me in to the book and kept me intrigued. In my opinion, the romantic elements felt secondary to the real plot and and the development and conclusion of the love triangle seemed too unrealistic, given its unique nature.

When it comes to depicting the book's settings, Therese Fowler does an excellent job. In particular, the descriptions of the luxurious Key West were very well-written and automatically triggered memories from a trip I took there years ago.

The book's ending presents some unanswered questions, which can either pave the way for a sequel or leave readers to their own imaginations. I enjoyed reading this book and though some of the plot development seemed unrealistic, it makes for a wonderful beach read, as the cover implies!

About the author:

Therese Fowler is the author of Souvenir. She holds an MFA in creative writing. She grew up in Illinois and now lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, with her husband and two sons.

BIG THANKS to Random House for my review copy and Dorothy for organizing this great Pump Up Your Book Promotion tour!

Monday, May 4, 2009

Book Review: I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti by Giulia Melucci

Continuing the food is another food-related memoir!

I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti by Giulia Melucci

Published by Grand Central Publishing

Rating: 4.5 stars

Giulia Melucci guides readers through her complicated love life, from men who couldn't commit to others who should be committed. Despite all the heartache and the never-ending quest for true love, Giulia has a positive outlook and shows how the joy of cooking changed her life. Throughout the pages, there are also many recipes that tie into the story and relate to Giulia's circumstances.

I read this book into the late hours of the night because every time I tried to stop at a certain chapter, I was too curious to put it down. The stories are fresh and interesting, many of them managing to induce fits of laughter. I also really love how personal the writing style is, almost as if she was a new friend filling me in on her past romances. Every time another man broke her heart, I wanted to shout at her, and tell her she deserves better than him!

While others may find the recipes interspersed throughout the narrative a distraction, I found them really charming and a perfect way to incorporate cooking into the storyline. I don't think including the recipes as an appendix would have had the same effect, especially given how funny some of their titles are, such as "Dinner to Impress an Older Gentleman" and "Spaghetti and Meatballs for Cooking Sluts and Those Who Love Them".

It is not that the recipes are exotic or even particularly unique, rather it’s their home-cooked feel that makes them special, as Giulia credits her own family for some of the recipes and for the inspiration behind many others. What is most important though, is the personality behind the food that stands out. Had the very same book idea been written by anyone other than Giulia, I doubt it would have turned out as engaging and witty as it is.

This memoir is not only enjoyable to read but practical as well, and I look forward to trying out some of the recipes in the future. With so many memoirs out there to choose from, I guarantee this one is not to be missed!

Be sure to check out this really interesting New York Times article about Giulia, which also features great pictures from her Brooklyn apartment.

BIG THANKS to Anna and Hachette Book Group for my review copy.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Book Review: Spiced by Dalia Jurgensen

Spiced: A Pastry Chef's True Stories of Trials by Fire, After-Hours Exploits, and What Really Goes on in the Kitchen by Dalia Jurgensen

Published by Putnam Adult, a division of Penguin Group (USA)

Rating: 4 stars

Dalia Jurgensen left her office job in the pursuit of a career in the culinary arts and quickly started off interning at Nobu, one of NYC's hottest restaurants filled with many V.I.P. customers. From there she worked at different restaurants, as well as a chef for Martha Stewart's TV show and a caterer in between. Spiced is the story of how Dalia navigated through the male-dominated kitchens and also provides details about her personal life during that time.

I found this book to be pretty entertaining, especially the insider's look into restaurant life and what really goes on in the kitchen while customers await their meals (which did frighten me at times!). There were a couple anecdotes about celebrity customers that were really fun to read about, although I wish I could have heard some more.

I enjoyed reading about the politics of the kitchen and how each restaurant has their own unique hierarchy for all the staff. It was also interesting to learn about the relationship between those who prepare/make the food and those who serve it, given that the chefs often view their jobs as a calling, while the waiters tend to think of their jobs as a means to some other end.

Jurgensen's decision to include a lot about her social life was smart because it helped paint the complete picture of what life is like in that milieu. I learned about the late night staff parties and bar cruising, not to mention the consequent lack of sleep. Some restaurant staff are wilder than others, and I was shocked to hear about some of the crazy antics that can occur once the last customer has left. There was also a fair bit about Jurgensen's romantic life but in my opinion much of it was unneccesary and didn't really help enhance the book.

I was a little disappointed that after reading all about these wonderful pastries, that none of the recipes were included as a glossary (not in my advanced copy, at least), but thankfully there are some wonderful recipes on Dalia's website that can be found here. I actually tried the brownie recipe and they were delicious!

Overall, I think this book provides an interesting look behind-the-scenes of some very busy and successful kitchens, while offering insight into what it's like working as a woman in those environments. Though the book concludes before describing Dalia's recent years, it still offers a nice overview of her experiences and how she became what she is today.

BIG THANKS to Penguin Group for my review copy.