Wednesday, July 11, 2007

June Reading Review

Initially, I thought I'd just read enough books to get me to 50 by the end of June, but I actually did quite well and am into the 60's. I'm very pleased with my progress, and it's renewed my enthusiasm for the project.

If you've never read my reviews before, I don't take care about spoilers, so if one of these books is on your "to be read" list, please beware that I may have a spoiler in there. I try not to give away any major plot lines, but sometimes little bits and pieces spill out.

Now, as I think I said in my previous post about Lesley's book challenge, I've lost my reading list for June, so this is right off the top of my head. I can think of 11 books I've read this month, and if there are more, I'll add them in with my July tally.

Without further ado...

1. How To Be Happy, Dammit! A Cynic's Guide to Spiritual Happiness by Karen Salmansohn. There came to a point earlier this year when I would visit my sister's house and our conversations would be like this:

Me: How are you guys?
Joe: All life is travesty.
Judy: I hate everyone. The entire universe is a bunch of f'ing idiots except for me.

If I called on the phone, it was the same. I was getting to the point I couldn't take it any more. I went to Barnes and Noble and out of the blue, How to Be Happy Dammit! called my name.

The book is a quick read full of interesting pictures, funny sayings, and stories. The bright orange cover catches the eye, and the first couple of lessons really grab you and don't let go. But it's not a sugary or saccharine type of self-help book either.

There are 44 lessons in the book and they are all interconnected. It begins with the idea that when you're first born, you're tiny, you don't know what's going on, you've been warm and cozy in your little womb, and then all of a sudden: WHACK! Some idiot on the outside smacks you when you're 3 1/2 seconds old and you've learned your first lessons: Life is not fair, and life occasionally hands out pain for seemingly no good reason. But without it, your little baby self would not grow, and instead you would be dead. I love, love, love this story. And the entire book has these interesting points of view and analogies.

If you're looking for a serene and calming self-help book, this might not be the one for you. BUT! If you want to have some fun learning to have a more positive outlook on life, and you find yourself a little bit cynical of the self help industry, this might just be the one for you.

The book is a very quick read, I read it in about an hour and then Michael and I re-read it outloud together in about an hour's time. Although I was loathe to do so, I did give it to Joe and Judy, and as best I can tell, they've put it in a cupboard and neither one of them has read it. C'est la vie. This book was fun, colorful, and interesting. READ IT!

2. Dark Tort by Diane Mott Davidson. This is the latest Goldie Schulz mystery. Even as I began to read this book, I thought to myself, "God forbid I ever find myself in Aspen Meadow, but if I do, I am never, ever going to become friends with Goldie Schulz." Aspen Meadow in all the books is portrayed as a sleepy small town in the Rockies, affluent, but small. Unfortunately for them, anyone who befriends Goldie tends to wind up extremely dead.

And for some reason, in this particular book, I couldn't quite get past that. The story revolves around a young woman who is found murdered at a law office, where Goldie has recently been hired to cater morning meetings. Goldie has been teaching Dusty to cook and prepare meals, and Dusty it turns out has been schtupping the partners on her way to the top, until she's permanently taken down a few rungs. Dusty also happened to be one of Julian's ex-girlfriends, and a neighbor of the Schulzes before her death, though I can't remember hearing her name ever mentioned in the previous novels.

The book was fine, formulaic Goldie, and I guess maybe I'm getting a wee bit tired of them. I'm sad to say that, as they've always been one of my favorite series of books.

3. Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Piccoult. Jodi Piccoult is one of my favorite writers and I was desperate to get my hands on a copy of this book--so desperate in fact that I actually broke my recent rule about only reading what I could get from Paperback Swap and had my sister pick me up a copy of it. Nineteen Minutes centers around the events in a small New Hampshire town when young Peter goes literally ballistic and shoots up his high school. Peter has endured years of abuse, beginning in kindergarten, at the hands of his peers and teachers, administrators, and his own parents have been unsympathetic about his torment. He goes to school, detonates a bomb, and in the ensuing panic, starts shooting.

The story follows two different families, that of Peter's and that of Josie's--Peter's sometimes friend and the daughter of a judge he may potentially face as part of his trial. Josie leaves Peter behind in grade school, becoming a queen bee, but she has her own personal demons behind being a popular kid and not feeling much like herself--or even knowing who she is if she's not Matt's girlfriend or the smart or pretty girl.

The story was un-put-down-able until the end, and then I thought the end was basically bullshit. (Pardon my Francais, gentle readers) There was a little twist at the end and I thought, "Huh, why the hell did she do that?!" which was also what I was thinking when I read another Piccoult classic, My Sister's Keeper. So I'm going to accept it as "what she does" and come away saying this was a darned good read. Fortunately not the tear jerker My Sister's Keeper was, but good nonetheless.

4. The First Four Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I am slow but sure making my way through the Little House books, and this one was so short, it should hardly count. This is the story of the Wilders' first four years of marriage, where they deal with every manner of bad thing that might befall them. Almanzo is determined to make life as a farmer work, although Laura begs him not too. She says she has no interest in being a farm wife, but eventually Almanzo prevails and they head to their own claim and begin life on the farm. Laura's dire predictions prove true, all the more disheartening when they have a small child to fend for. Still, Laura and Almanzo make the best of things in spite of their losing battle.

Apparently this book was so short because Laura never finished writing it, and it was patched together with permission of her daughter, Rose. It was a quick and easy read for some low stress summer reading. I suppose this is as close to cheating as it gets, really, but I don't care. Go read your own 100 if you don't like mine. :-)

5. Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn. I found this book at the Wilderness Library and very nearly didn't buy it. Just looking at the title, the words didn't exactly compute and I thought, "hmmm, this book seems kind of silly." Then I read "A Novel in Letters" and my shameless snoop side came out. I love, love, love reading books that are comprised of letters, I feel like I'm really snooping in someone's mail or diaries, and it makes it so interesting. So I picked up Ella and on my way to the car, said the title out loud and the light went on.

The story is one of letters, literally, written in letters between various people. The fictional town of Nollop is facing a crisis: Named after Nevin Nollop who famously coined the phrase "The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog", a statue to its founder in town is falling to pieces. Specifically, letters on tiles comprising the famous sentence are falling off the statue, and the town council has taken that as a sign. The citizenry is officially banned from using any letter which falls off the sign. Failure to restrict use of those letters results first in lashing, and then in banishment from the island. They may neither speak nor write the offending letters. It starts out fairly simply, with the letter Z, but eventually more and more letters drop and it becomes harder and harder to write and speak.

I won't reveal how it is resolved, but it was an excellent story and one that I only wish I had had the cleverness to invent myself. It's a fairly short book as well, so you could read it pretty quickly if you wanted to! Fun and funny, definitely a book for people who love words. Take up the town's challenge yourself and see if you can come up with a sentence...?

6. The Master Quilter by Jennifer Chiaverini. Yet another Elm Creek Quilt book. And yet another about Sylvia. And I was sure I'd hate it and again I loved it. Damn you, Chiaverini!

In this latest read, the Elm Creek Quilters decide they are going to make a surprise for Sylvia Compson and Andrew, her new husband. They send letters, inviting former campers and quilters nationwide to create squares which they will put together as a bridal quilt for Sylvia and Andrew. In the meanwhile, all the Elm Creek Quilters are beset with their own issues: Summer wants to become her own person. Judy struggles with issues surrounding her job and her family. Bonnie has an evil realtor on her tail and her store's profits are doing worse than ever. Diane must contend with her next door neighbor and chief rival, Mary Ann. Agnes struggles over how best to help a friend in need.

It would be pure schlock if it weren't so compelling. Finally back to the Elm Creek Quilters and their lives, which I was desperate to know about, and I was so happy to read about it, I could scarcely care what they were going to do by the end--though I certainly agreed with all the decisions made by each of the women.

I wish these books weren't so fun to read and I wish I didn't have such a visceral reaction to them before I picked each one up. The funny thing is that Judy does too, and consequently, we moan and groan before reading each one and then discuss them ad nauseum. That's when you know it's something good--when you can't wait to share.

7. This Place Has No Atmosphere by Paula Danziger. I'm going to buy Michael a bumper sticker for the car that reads "My money and my wife go to Wilderness Library." I love picking through their book shelves of sale books, and I was thrilled to find another Danziger from my youth. This particular offering marks Danziger's foray into the world of sci fi, telling the tell of young Aurora, an aspiring high school actress whose parents have decided to move the family quite literally to the Moon. Aurora is devastated--she is part of the in-crowd at school, and has no intention of leaving Earth to go to the Moon. Her parents finally agree that she can come home after a year if she hates it. And so, Aurora, her sister, and her parents become space pioneers and Aurora must find her way in a place that has no atmosphere.

The sci fi aspect of the things is really quite silly, but it touches a chord in every kid who never wanted to move or who had issues with their parents. I never moved growing up, although I sometimes thought my life would be easier if I did, but I certainly had typical teenage issues with my parents that were hard to resolve, and I remember loving this book. When I told Judy I had it, she practically ripped it out of my hands, recalling small details I never remembered. A fun, quick read, if you want a little nostalgia mixed in with silly sci fi, you'll enjoy it.

8. Cat on the Scent by Rita Mae and Sneaky Pie Brown. I got a whole pile of books for Christmas and have been slowly trying to make my way through them so as to encourage the givers to give me more books! This is a book my mom sent me in the hopes that I would enjoy the series.

I had this particular series confused with the "The Cat Who..." books, and hadn't really heard of these books. Apparently, they center around a small cadre of animals who live in a little Virginia town in Albemarle County with the post mistress. Crimes happen in Crozet, and the animals are a step ahead of the humans in solving them. The leader of the animals seems to be a large cat named Mrs. Murphy, and she has a couple of other animals, a cat called Pewter, and a corgi called Tucker, with whom she fights crime and criminals in town.

Although the humans tell the animals to be quiet, they are often shocked to discover that the animals know the locations of important clues to solving mysteries.

In this particular book, the mystery is what happened to a downed plane and pilot, and who shot Sir H. Vane-Tempest during a Civil War re-enactment. Of course the animals know what happened, but the humans are a little slow on the uptake. One of the best scenes is when the 3 animals shanghai a Porsche and hot rod around Virginia's hills.

I am glad to have received and read this book, though I would very much like to read the first in the series to see if I understand the books and people a bit better. I understand from reading reviews of the books that many people want to know if the post mistress and her ex-husband will ever remarry, but I wasn't invested in that particular plot line. I suspect if I do read these from the start, I'll be quite invested in them. Brown makes the books pretty easy to read--the animals' conversations are in italics and the humans are in regular print. A good read, but a bit confusing. I'll have to read more!! (Thanks, Mom!)

9. Two for the Dough by Janet Evanovich. This is another Stephanie Plum book and I'm getting Mike into these. We're reading them together and enjoying them a great deal. I can't say much about them other than I love them and I'll continue reading them till she quites writing them. It's been fun to go back to the beginning to hear about things before Stephanie and Morelli were really serious.

This book centers around the funeral home where Grandma Mazur likes to get her social interaction on a near nightly basis. Stephanie is hired by the sleezy owner to be his personal bodyguard and to find some property of his that has been stolen by his equally unscrupulous business associate--who happens to be Morelli's cousin.

Of course I love the books. My favorite is upcoming--four and ten are amazing--but the first few are real good. And even though they are formulaic, they remain witty and I never tire of them. I've told Judy to get me 13 and she better not have forgotten (hint, hint). I'm dying to read it.

10. Along Came a Spider by James Patterson. Again, having run through almost the entire Grisham library, we knew we needed to find someone else to read, and I decided Michael would enjoy the Alex Cross series by James Patterson. So we've started. I will never again read Kiss the Girls, which was more disturbing than I could say, so I got Along Came a Spider and we read this together over our vacation in RI/NY.

The story introduces Gary Soneji, brilliant psychopathic serial killer, who will become Cross's nemesis for some books to come. In this, Soneji kidnaps the daughter of a prominent movie star and the son of a prominent government official. Pulled off a seemingly unrelated case, the brilliant Alex Cross is forced onto this case against his will, but soon realizes he's matching wits with someone who truly needs to be reckoned with.

I really enjoyed this particular book, and I enjoyed reading it in the past. It was one that stuck with me and I remembered the ending of it, so it was no surprise, but what surprised me was how much I enjoyed getting through the story to see how it all tied together. The mind games that Soneji played with Cross made for some riveting reading and we hated to put it down even for a second. If you've never read a Patterson/Cross book, this is a great place to start.

11. The Last Days of Summer by Steve Kluger. I've saved the best for last. This was my favorite book of June and one of my favorites this year, and quite probably one of my all time favorites. I laughed until I cried and then I turned around and cried until I laughed.

Joey Margolis is a wise-cracking kid living tough in Brooklyn. Charlie Banks is a typical dumb jock who makes it big playing baseball for the Giants. They strike up an unlikely penpalship and the results draw in Joey's mother and aunt, his teacher, and Charlie's teammates and girlfriend, Hazel McKay, a singer competing with Ethel Merman in the clubs of New York.

The story begins with Joey in trouble with the law after a street fight with some other kids. He is interviewed by police and begins writing letters to Charlie Banks, trying to get him to acknowledge Joey's presence on the radio so the other kids in school will think Joey's a big deal. The nastier Charlie gets with Joey, the more he can't stop replying to Joey's letters and an unlikely friendship is formed.

The story also shares Joey's letters to FDR, Joey's report cards, police reports, "and etc." (as Charlie frequently writes in the book). It contains such literary gems as the sentence "There is not one shred of historical evidence to support the idea that Dolley Madison was a lesbian." And I frankly loved Charlie calling FDR "Muffinmouth."

The book begins in 1941 and carries through World War II. About 50 pages before the end, it's clear how the book will end, but even that didn't bother me. The book is not about sports, so if you're anti-baseball or anti-sports, you won't be bored with it. Instead, the story is that of an unlikely friendship between a boy who needs someone in his life and a man becoming that person against his will and with a little prodding from the people around him.

Joey's mom and aunt reminded me a lot of my own family, and I swear I could hear my mom's voice in my head as I read the letters from Joey's mother.

I cannot possibly describe what a great book this is. Take my word for it, get a copy, read it and re-read it. Once I get it back from my dad, to whom I lent it and who also loved the hell out if it, I'll be reading it again and again for years to come.

Thus endeth June.

It was a good month for reading, partly because I spent the last few days out at the pool and with my mother-in-law who is now reading 10 books per week (darn her!). To break it down:

The Excellent: Last Days of Summer

The Great: How to Be Happy, Dammit!, Ella Minnow Pea, The Master Quilter

The Good: Nineteen Minutes, Two for the Dough, Along Came a Spider, This Place Has No Atmosphere, Cat On the Scent

The OK: Dark Tort, The First Four Years

The Awful: N/A

Totals for June:

Books Read: 11
Pages Read: 3452

Totals for 2007:

Books Read: 57
Pages Read: 18,504

1 pearl(s) of wisdom:

Melissa said...

So a few days ago I typed up this whole huge comment for you about how much I too enjoyed "Nineteen Minutes" and how I too didn't like the "twist" at the end. This was my 3rd Piccoult novel and, yes it's "her thing". Although I think it worked much better in "My Sister's Keeper".

I saw your "Library Thing" and had to have my own. It made for an interesting evening filling my library with books as well as figureing out how to add it to my blog. I got it up there, and I got the image for the challenge up, but I'm not sure I can do it again...

Off to bed...I'm plowing through this huge book I picked for the challenge and I have to finish it by next weekend since Harry Potter comes out. I already put it down once to read Nineteen Minutes...

Here's hoping I get the code correct to post this so I don't lose it again....