Books are cheaper than heroin, but they DO add up....

Amy, Carrie, Chanin and Sarah buy (and read and review) their own stuff. They've been known to shop around from dealer to dealer looking for the best price. If you're interested in slipping them something to try out, just contact us.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard

(I really should have known more about this guy.)

need to be quick about this because I stepped out of a Super Secret Spy meeting to blog.  I shouldn't even be telling you because, duh, it's super secret.  But . . . we're all friends here, so I think I can mention my clandestine life* in passing. I can't give you much detail, because, again, duh, then I'd hafta kill you.

*I'm a Super Aunt, see, and that sometimes involved spending time fighting the "bad guys" with your nieces and nephews.

The main subjects of Destiny of the Republic also have their clandestine elements.  There is the unseen bacteria that ultimately killed a President, there are the behind-the-doors machinations of a political party, there are the internal delusions of a mad man, and there is mostly forgotten life of the 20th President of the United States.

I can honestly say that what I knew about President Garfield before I read this book wasn't enough to drown in.  I had a vague recollection that he was shot because his assassin wanted a job.  In my foggy and vague memories, the gun shot killed Garfield and the assassin was a supporter of Vice President Chester Arthur.  It was true that the man who shot President Garfield, Charles Guiteau, wanted an appointment, but it was truly his own madness that led him to believe that God wanted Garfield removed from office. Guiteau believed that President Garfield was a threat to the Republic and to the Republican Party.  And while Garfield died from complications from his wounds, it was truly preventable and curable infection that killed him instead of the initial injury.

So I was nominally right, but mostly I was really, really wrong.

Destiny of the Republic is mostly outside my reading sweet spot.  There are no vampires, there's not much romance, and, for goodness sake, it's non-fiction.  However, it was really, really interesting.

I learned a lot.  I was mesmerized by the politics of the day; they weren't that different from those of today but much of the obnoxious behavior was in-party fighting instead between party.  The current state of the medical field was horrifying and gripping.  The drive of Alexander Graham Bell to invent a machine that would help locate the bullet still lodged in the President's body was riveting.  The audacity and insanity of Charles Guiteau was astounding.

All in all, I highly recommend Destiny of the Republic.  It's tone and delivery reminded me of Devil in the White City by Erik Larson (another non-fiction book I highly recommend).

In summary, you should read this book, and I should get back to my meeting.  The world is depending on me, or, at least, a niece and a nephew. Pin It

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Listen by Rene Gutteridge

I almost forgot about this book.  Not the most endearing start to a review, I know.  I forgot about it not because I didn't like it, but because it messed me up in the head a little.  It messed me up in a good way though, and I think it is safe to say that I have now properly processed the book and am ready to give my two cents. Or maybe even three.

The storyline is relatively simple. Residents in the small town of Marlo take pride in the fact that their town lacks notoriety.  Suddenly, change comes in the form of a website that publishes everyone's private conversations.  Seemingly harmless at first, the website is brushed off as an innocent prank.  Days later the website is still up and running and so are the tempers of Marlo residents.  What was once innocent has now turned dangerous.

I'm confident that if this really happened to me, it would not make for anything interesting to write about.  I mean, unless you were interested in gluten-free cooking, Crossfit, or listening to a fourth-grader try to tell you how to make a diorama of an arctic tundra, not many national secrets are being exposed here.  But what this book so accurately portrays is that it's not the national secrets that do the most damage (I'm speaking loosely here.  Please don't think I don't take national security issues seriously.  I take Uncle Sam and my husband's security clearance VERY seriously).  But in our personal lives, it's really our relationships that make us who we are.  What if every single word we spoke in private was suddenly made public?  What kind of damage would that do?  In most cases our relationships would probably suffer.  What would that mean for us as a person or for us as a society?

I hope I am not making this book sound "preachy" because it wasn't at all.  It did, however, give me a nice, big, fat reality check.  Am I treating others the way I would like to be treated?  More importantly, how do I use my words?  I am reminded constantly that my two children listen to every word I say (scary stuff, people), but what about my neighbor?  What about the extended members of my family?  Heck, what about the other moms at the bus stop?  Words are powerful and should be used carefully.  I need to remember that.

Gutteridge also went a step further in Listen and used more than one point of view.  We hear from a policeman, a teenager, a reporter and a mom, all impacted in different ways by the website.  These different perspectives give even more validity to the power of words. Just because someone is in a certain line of work or is a certain age, doesn't mean words mean any less to them.  I need to remember that too.

I read this book almost a year ago.  And a year later, I can still summon the emotions I had when I first read it. Hurt. Paranoia. Sadness.  All things that resulted from people's words.  All things we ALL need to remember.

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Friday, December 23, 2011

How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss

I originally planned to review the third and final installment of Mr. Larsson's Girl series, but I'm not quite finished (the holidays are getting the in the way of my reading) and this is the book that's been read the most here at our house.  So I thought I'd tell you all the reasons I love this book (and the old-school cartoon that is still occasionally on TV around this time of year).  It comes highly recommended by all members of this family, except Oreo for reasons to be discussed.

1.  You can't stop Christmas from coming.
If you don't know me or follow my personal blog then you might not know I have two really awesome kids.  My daughter is four and a half, an exceptional singer, crazy smart, outrageously courageous, and was diagnosed with autism before she was two years of age.  One of her greatest challenges is communicating.  When faced with communication issues, a family must decide on what the heart of most matters is and focus on that.  For example, there's Christmas.  A lot of stuff comes along with Christmas as a holiday, but what's really the heart of the matter; what do I want my daughter to really understand?  I want her to understand that Christmas is about perfect love.  For those with a christian faith, the perfect love comes in the form of a baby.  It comes in other forms for other faiths, and for those who do not believe in a particular religion or faith this time of year has the potential to be (possibly really annoying) full of community and family spirit.  That's what I want her to understand.  Christmas, for us the birth of a baby that would try to teach us to love one another, comes whether there are presents under the tree, stockings, or rare Who roast-beast.  So the Grinch can do his worst, but Christmas will still come.  Don't worry.  She's getting presents.  But at least we're working on not focusing on them as the sole purpose of the holiday.

The Grinch and I have something in common.  We both hate the noise of all the toys and merriment.  That is not to say I hate to hear children having a good time, it's just that my kids are LOUD.  But the Grinch reminds me that I shouldn't be a party-pooper and let the kids (and any loud adults in the area, hhmmm...who could that be?) have their fun.  I can buy ear plugs and not ruin everyone's joy.

3.  Giggles or Oreo's Lament
The first time we read this book both of my kids immediately giggled at the sight of Max, the Grinch's dog for the uninitiated, with a horn tied on his head with red thread.  Oreo immediately gave me stink eye for putting ideas in my son's head.  They giggled as tiny Max pulled the over-sized sleigh up to the top of Mt. Crumpit. Oreo continued to give me stink eye.  Then they watched the cartoon version, in which Max has a larger role.  My son fell over (granted he's not quite two so take that for what it's worth) he laughed so hard as Max attempted to catch bags of stolen presents, trimmings, and trappings being shoved up the chimbleys. That's the kind of noise I can handle.  Even if Oreo's stink eye continues to this day.  He needs the exercise it takes to run away from Grinch imitators.

4.  Welcome Christmas
This is really just a reprise of #1.  This is book if fun to read.  The pictures are magically Seussical.  But the message is what I really like.  We didn't read this book last year, but I wish we did.  We were missing my husband while he was in Afghanistan and we could have used the reminder that Christmas is about love - whether its near or far.  When I hear my daughter sing herself to sleep at night with the song from the cartoon, my heart grows three sizes.  We don't need  all the presents, food, and decorations.  They're all really, really nice, but not essential for Christmas to come.

Welcome Christmas
While we stand
Heart to heart
And hand in hand
Christmas Day
Will always be
Just as long
As we have we

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, A Very Merry Day to you all! Pin It

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures by Malcolm Gladwell

Personally, I'm a fan of Malcolm Gladwell's.  I love The Tipping Point so much that I make my Consumer Behavior students read it.  I thought Outliers was an amazing, and Blink is interesting (if frustrating because I don't think he ever answers his own core question.)  Not everyone agrees with me. Every once in a while I'll hear colleagues scoff at the mention of Gladwell's name; they'll claim that others write on similar topics with more depth.  Every once in a while I'll see acquaintances roll their eyes when I mention something from The Tipping Point; they tell me that Gladwell only writes about the obvious.

Here's what I have to say about that:
     a) every one of us is entitled to our own opinions, and
     b) really? You call that a critique?

(Err, so maybe I need to work on my application of the "live and let live" philosophy.  Peace.  Goodwill to men and all that.)

Gladwell writes, really well, for a non-academic audience.  His writing is as in-depth as is appropriate for his readers.  Also, OF COURSE it all seems obvious after you've read his work.  That means he's done an amazing job finding and retelling stories that support a general premise.  Perhaps he's writing about things you've already thought about, but he's taken those questions we all have and done something with them.  He's researched and retold the answers to questions that resonate with so many of us.  Gladwell writes about the things that make us go "Hmm."

I think for the everyday reader and the typical undergraduate student (two mutually exclusive categories, those) Gladwell makes for an excellent read.  It's with that opinion that I recommend What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures.  This book is a collection of magazine articles Gladwell wrote for The New Yorker.  For a consumer behavior junkie like me, this book simply rocks.  Even if you've never been fixated on brands and logos and service recovery, this is a a good read*.  There's a crazily interesting article about ketchup. (No joke.)  Have you ever considered that there are yellow mustards, brown mustards, spicy mustards, and plain mustards, but, for most of America, there's really just Heinz ketchup?  There's a great piece about Ron Popeil and the history of Billy Mays-like salesmanship.  How many items have you purchased based on the power of a demonstration?  There's also a really cool article about Cesar Millan, the dog whisperer.  What does the dog see, after all?

I'm also specifically recommending it for holiday reading because a collection of magazine articles has definitive stops and starts.  For those of you still shopping, wrapping, shipping, cleaning, cooking, and decorating for the December holidays, this book is nice to have right now because you can pick it up and put it down.  You can use it as a short break between tasks without worrying about getting sucked in to a 300-page plot that you just can't seem to ignore.  After 20 pages about ketchup, you can put the book down and process what you've read as you go back to your cookie dough.

*I liked this book enough that I'm willing to recommend it EVEN THOUGH the articles on behavioral profiling have pretty much ruined Criminal Minds for me.

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Thursday, December 15, 2011

Fate by Amanda Hocking

Amanda Hocking is quickly becoming my "go-to gal."  She is like my favorite boots on a cold day.  She is like a Diet Pepsi when I have a headache.  She is to me what cheese pizza is to my son.  There is not really any pizza he doesn't like.  Pizza is pizza.  There is really not any Amanda Hocking book I don't like.  Her writing is her writing and it makes me happy.

In case you are new to our blog, I'll refer you to my one other review of an Amanda Hocking book, My Blood Approves.  This was the first in this series and you can read all about it here.  Today's review is on the second in the series, Fate.  And I am happy to report, the second one is even better than the first.

Fate picks up where My Blood Approves left off.  Alice is just weeks away from starting her senior year in high school.  She has enjoyed her summer of lounging around the vampire family's house ('cause that's normal) and is biding her time until she can tell her brother that she wants to become a vampire.  Since her dad is gone and she has no real relationship with her mother, Alice feels the need to make sure her younger brother, Milo, is completely independent before she leaves him and "turns."

In an effort to make him feel more comfortable with her new vampire family, Alice introduces Milo to them and things are going quite swimmingly.  That is, until Milo and Jack (Alice's vampire boyfriend) are goofing around in the lake and Milo breaks his neck.  In order to save his life, Jack makes a quick decision and bites him.  (Apparently vampire saliva heals all...who knew?).

So, that now makes everyone in the the world that she cares about a vampire while she is still a dull, boring human.  To make matters worse, Milo is a young vampire and needs lots of attention to make sure he matures in the safest manner possible.  The bottom line?  He can't be around his sister (she smells too good and is thus, tempting) so Alice must return to her real life and try to ignore the fact that her brother is getting to do everything she has dreamed of doing for over a year. 

The same qualities I liked about My Blood Approves apply here.  No cheesy stuff.  No long drawn-out drama.  It is a very quick read, too.  All good qualities, in my opinion.    A little more mystery is introduced too, which is a plus.  For example, Jack's brother Peter is now gone but Alice finds a book he wrote about vampires which generates some suspicion.  All of this, plus a cliffhanger of an ending that had me immediately scrambling to buy the next installment for my nook.

Try it out and let me know what you think.  I would love to hear from another Amanda Hocking fan if we have any out there.  And while you're at it, I'll take any pizza recommendations, also.   Do we have any pizza fans?

Read what other people think about Fate, here

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Monday, December 12, 2011

The Girl Who Played with Fire by Steigg Larsson

This is the second book in the series, and I liked it quite a bit.  Maybe not as much as I enjoyed the first, but I would still recommend it.  What I missed in the second installment, was the interaction between Blomkvist and Salander; she's out of the country at the beginning of the book and then ends up in hiding for a great duration.  But the mysteries are still engaging and there's plenty of intrigue, so a worth while read in my opinion.

In The Girl Who Played with Fire, Lisbeth is in the midst of an aimless trek around the world as the story opens.  She leaves Sweden heartbroken and goes traveling to give herself some physical and emotional distance from her problems.  However, she ends up in the middle of a domestic abuse situation and the reader gets a little more insight into her moral code as she "deals" with it.  Meanwhile, Blomkvist and his colleagues at Millennium are approached by a freelancer who has been researching sex trafficking in Sweden.  His fiancee has also been researching the subject as part of her thesis, and together they've uncovered quite a few prominent figures who have been on the wrong side of Sweden's no tolerance policy in regards to sex trafficking.  As the reporter keeps digging, he continually uncovers a mysterious figure Zala.  Right before the publication of the article and not long after the reporter makes inquiries about Zala, he and his fiancee are murdered in their apartment.  Lisbeth's state-appointed guardian is also murdered the same night and with the same weapon.  Unfortunately for Lisbeth, her fingerprints are on the murder weapon.

From here the police launch a muddled investigation, which we read about in great detail.  Blomkvist tries to continue the work of the slain reporter AND launch an investigation to assert Lisbeth's innocence.  We find out a great deal about Lisbeth, her childhood, her adolescence, and how she came to be the enigma of a woman she is during this investigation.  Lisbeth goes into hiding and then comes out of hiding to put matters to rest in her own style.  There are more twists and turns, dead ends, dead beat cops, and criminal underworld elements than I can count, but it will definitely keep you interested.  And that's all I'm going to say, because it would be cheating to say more.  Read it for yourself.  And don't forget your sandwich.

PS  There is no movie preview for this book, so here's a picture of Daniel Craig just because.  I looked for one of him eating a sandwich but couldn't find any.

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Monday, December 5, 2011

The Next Always by Nora Roberts

One of the joys of reading, for me, is the discovery of new authors. This joy, though, is risky.  For every new author who's brought me delight at least three have felt like a waste of my time and money.  So one of the other great joys of reading is turning to a tried and true author whose stories I can slip into like a pair of fleece pajama pants or sink my teeth into like a toasty grilled cheese sandwich.  Warm, comfortable, easy.  A sure thing.  

(Okay.  Anyone else totally distracted by the thought of comfy pajama pants and good grilled cheese?  Yeah, me, too. Mmmm. Grilled cheese.  Ahhh.  Pajama pants.  I made this awesome taco soup last night and ate it while wearing flannel pajama pants.  That's not quite the same level of fleece-comfyness, and the soup would have totally been improved with a half a grilled cheese sandwich.  Obviously, I won't make THOSE mistakes again. Uhh, this isn't a food blog.  How did I get onto this topic?  Right.  I digress.)

Nora Roberts has written over 100 novels.  I'm pretty sure I've read 80% of them.  Any I've missed would have been the early releases written under the Silhouette label.  She first started publishing in the early '80s, and I'm pretty sure I started reading her work in the late '80s.  As writer and reader, we've been together for a long, long time. We're good together, me and Ms. Roberts, if a bit predictable.  That means that Ms. Roberts rarely writes anything that surprises me*.  Happily, I find her as consistent as she is prolific; she rarely writes anything that disappoints me.

*Ms. Roberts has three basic book types.  She has her completely fantastic, long-running Eve Dallas series written under the J.D. Robb pseudonym.  (Any author or TV writer who wants to know how to sustain a long-term, successful romance between two main characters should read this series.)  She has her "big books" that stand alone as a (usually) suspenseful romance where one of the main characters has a job or hobby that the reader learns about in great detail.  Then she has her trilogies. Families feature big in Ms. Roberts' books, so the trilogies often include a set of siblings or three friends who might as well be family (or, conveniently, both).  The trilogy characters are fairly routine after all this time.

The Next Always is the first of a trilogy, the Inn Boonsboro trilogy.  (This one will feature brothers AND three women who are close enough friends to consider themselves sisters.  Plot-wise = convenient.  Reader-wise = predictable.)  For me, at this point, the question at the beginning of each new trilogy is to see if the reiteration of the characters is engaging enough for me to read a story that, for most plot purposes, I've read before.  Is the dialogue fresh?  Are the characters believable?  Do they have interesting jobs?  Do I believe in the spark or connection between the love interests?  That's the difference between sitting down in front of a television rerun and saying "oh, look, I love this one. Don't change the channel" instead of "oh, boo, I've seen this one before." 

Not all of the trilogies hit that mark, but I'm happy to report that I really liked The Next Always.  The three brothers and their mother are renovating an old inn. That part of the story will continue through all three books.  The main characters in the first one are the architect/carpenter brother and the bookstore owner he had a huge crush on in high school.  She's now a war widow with three kids and a stalker.  The inn under renovation has a ghost.  The story of the renovation is obviously something close to Ms. Roberts' heart because that's what really drew me in.  I liked the characters, but it was their compelling purpose with the inn that made me think "oh, look, I love this one."  I finished reading it wanting to root again for my old friends**, the stock trilogy characters.

It's a romance novel, so you all know how it ends, but I think it's safe to say that you'll want to keep reading to see for yourself.  There's an inn to complete and a ghost to figure out, so I suspect you'll be back for the next two, as well--preferably cozied up in a pair of fleece pajama pants.

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Friday, December 2, 2011

There Are No Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz

Have I mentioned that I love it when people recommend books for me to read?  My neighbor loaned me this one claiming it was one of her "go to" books.  She keeps it solely for the purpose of loaning it out to friends, meaning it has probably moved at least five times thanks to the Army.  If it's good enough to withstand a PCS (permanent change of station) purge (something we military spouses do regularly before we move), I had to give it a try.  I'm glad I did. 

Set in Chicago and centered around the lives of two brothers in the late 1980's/early 1990's,  "There are No Children Here" is a non-fiction piece (Don't act so shocked.  I read non-fiction...sometimes), and reports on the happenings in their lives for approximately two years.   That's it.  That's all it is.  But it is so much more.   

The brothers, Lafayette and Pharoah Rivers, live in the Henry Horner homes.   Erected in the 1950's by the Chicago Housing Authority, the Henry Horner homes brought hope and encouragement to thousands of lower income families on Chicago's south side.  By the time we meet the boys in 1985 however, hope and encouragement have turned to poverty and despair.  Unemployment is rampant among the occupants and so are drug use and gang violence.  The boys' mother, LaJoe, told the author, "There are no children here.  They've seen too much to be children."

The story isn't pretty.  The conditions in their two- bedroom apartment on the first floor of a 14-story high rise are despicable.   The plumbing doesn't work.  The heating and air-conditioning are unreliable.  Garbage overflows into the hallways.  The children spend hours on the floor in the kitchen to avoid the intermittent gunfire that takes place outside their living room window.  Oftentimes, their apartment is overflowing with relatives that need food or a place to sleep.  The boys' father regularly passes out drunk on the couch. 

It may sound odd that I found an instant connection to this book.   Theirs is a story of survival.  In the mid 1980's I was the same age as Lafayette and the only thing I had survived was a 24-hour road trip from Oklahoma to Montana in the back of a Chevy Celebrity.  (That trip was made all the more bearable thanks to my yellow Sony Walkman and Ghostbusters soundrack).  I certainly never had to worry about gunfire outside my house.  We had plumbing that worked and the trash was picked up every Monday.  But I know that I saw these boys.   I saw them every time my dad took me to a Chicago Bulls or White Sox game.  I saw them offering to "watch" cars while we went inside to the game, hoping to make a few bucks.  I saw them goofing around with their friends on the sidewalk.  I saw them then and used to say to myself, "I can't imagine living here."   

 By spending the better part of two years with the boys and their family, the author exposes us to the disturbing reality that is growing up on Chicago's west side.  I was amazed at how open the family was and  how every day was just "business as usual."  The boys may have attended a funeral of a classmate one day and then participated in a spelling bee the next.  Violence, drugs, gangs, school, work, hunger, exhaustion and love surrounded them, just not all at the same time.  I marveled at their resiliency.  The ending is neither tragic or shocking.  Actually, it's not even really an ending.  Their lives go on (I know because I googled them, hoping they hadn't succumbed to gangs or drugs).  Thanks to the generosity of the author and some other special people, they both went to college and as far as I can find, still live in Chicago.  That's it.  That's all there is for now.  But for them, it's so much more.

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