Monday, November 29, 2010

Coffee and Fate by R.J. Erbacher — 134 pgs

Book CoverIn this slim novella we meet Val, a young woman who can telepathically move objects without touching them. When Val witnesses a crime at a coffee shop, she longs to intervene but a strange older man named Bud stops her. He knows the secret she's hidden her whole life and tells her that intervening in this crime would ruin her life. Shaken and confused, Val agrees to meet Bud again, discovering that the old man has a secret power of his own. It seems that Bud can see particular instances of the future and can mysteriously change the fate he is privy to. The friendship between Val and Bud grows and they find themselves sharing more and more about their powers and their lives. But this friendship is tested when Bud realigns Val's fate after seeing one of his frightening visions. More importantly, Bud begins to tap into Val's powers and instruct her on how to use her abilities to the fullest. Though Val is unsure of why Bud is doing these things, she feels an inexplicable trust in him, and it's not until Bud's final vision that Val discovers that she and Bud must make the ultimate sacrifice in order for the fate of the world to be secure. Both strange and alluring, Coffee and Fate takes its readers on a mind bending journey through freewill and fate and shows them how even the slightest action or inaction can change the course of a life.

I've been reading reviews of this book all over the place, and after reading Sandy and Natalie's reaction to it, I knew this was a book I couldn't ignore. I was all set to make my purchase when an unexpected email arrived from Natalie. Did I want her to send me a copy of this book? You bet your darn bippy I did! When it arrived, I put aside what I was currently reading and sat and read it straight through. I have to say it was a wild ride that really challenged a lot of preconceived notions I had about fiction. The line this book drew between reality and fantasy was interesting to ponder over, and the story it tells was both frightening and exquisite.

Erbacher does a great job of making these two pivotal protagonists seem like normal everyday people, but these people just happen to have the fate of the universe in their hands. Of course, early on in the story, these powers seem like mere flukes of nature and it isn't clear why Bud and Val have been gifted with such awesome abilities. As their friendship grows, so do the powers they have, and despite their reluctance to use these powers, they find themselves doing things that not only change each other's lives but the lives of those around them. There is a lot of second guessing in the story, and both Bud and Val have moments when their conscience is troubled by their rare abilities.

The relationship between Bud and Val was a strange one. Though he's a septuagenarian and she's barely into her twenties, the two dote on each other almost like lovers, and at times, lines of propriety are crossed. I actually think the relationship between them made me a little uncomfortable, though Erbacher does a lot to keep things from feeling too creepy. There's a great amount of affability and affection between these two, which is one reason it was so hard for me to see Bud interfering with Val's fate. It seemed like he was creepily taking advantage somehow and using her naïveté against her. Something about this duo made me feel uneasy and it's arguable whether or not this relationship had sinister hallmarks. Maybe I'm just letting my personal feelings get in the way.

As Bud relates the story of his power to Val, I became sad and frightened for him. In retrospect, there are things Bud should have done that were impossible to do, and he is living a life shadowed by guilt and regret. I think Bud was hoping to change things for Val in order to compensate for the actions of his past, but as time marches on and his complicity with Val grows, Bud begins to see the big picture and forces Val into making a terrible choice. When I finally realized what was happening, I was aghast and felt sick in the pit of my stomach. Though Val has willingly followed Bud along this path, she's not free to make her own choices until it's too late. Bud has once again orchestrated Val's fate, and this time, it will be impossible to shake off these changes.

As I read, I was subconsciously asking myself a lot of questions about fate and freewill. How terrible would it be to be visited by visions of the future, knowing there was something I needed to do to change things, and afterward, wondering if I had done enough or if the changes I made would ultimately prove more catastrophic? How much love does it take for you to sacrifice yourself for another? And does loving someone give you the right to alter their fate if given the chance? These are all sticky questions, and aside from making me think about what I would do in these situations, the book showed me that not everything about life and fate are clear-cut. There are numerous shades of gray involved, and like Bud, sometimes people have trouble interpreting those shades.

Though there were some aspects that were just plain creepy, overall I would have to applaud the story that Erbacher created, not only for its originality but for its ability to provoke strong and strange reactions in its readers. It is, at times, a discomfiting book that presents a lot of sticky ethical questions, but there's no doubt in my mind that it will keep you flipping the pages, entranced by the not-so-normal people that it seeks to capture. A very interesting but dark read.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Damage by Josephine Hart — 208 pgs

In this intense and shocking novel, an unnamed narrator details the treacherous and frightening spiral from his life of ease and comfort into one of depravity and obsession. The narrator, a well-to-do politician and doctor with a beautiful wife and two children, has always felt that things have come to him too easily and nothing he's attained has truly been a challenge for him. He walks through life with a deep sense of ennui, content to live his life in the shadow of a deep seated discomfort and numbness, when one day his son, Martyn, brings home the latest in a series of women. But Anna, Martyn's new girlfriend, is different, and the narrator immediately takes notice of her in some disturbing ways, feeling instantly as though he has finally met one of his own kind. The relationship between this man and Anna is instantaneously deviant and sexually fearsome, and soon the narrator is being slowly driven mad with the compulsion to possess Anna in every way. This is a serious problem, for Martyn has marriage in mind, and though he allows Anna the freedom that she needs to be who she is, he doesn't realize that she is abusing his trust. As the narrator becomes more and more obsessed with this odd woman, whom his wife also feels strangely about, his life begins to crumple and distort in a series of events that will shatter not only him his family, but anyone connected to Anna as well. Deeply physiologically disturbing, this close and spare novel immediately grabs you in its teeth and shakes you, until finally you are left spent and breathless, marveling at the cruelty and deception within it.

From the moment I began this book, there was a dark and portentous feeling surrounding me as I read. I think part of this comes from the fact that Hart knows her material and is able to be lush and spare at the same time, creating a sense of confinement and dread within the narrator's confession. For that is truly what this book really is, a confession of the dark misdeeds that the narrator succumbs to in his pursuit of Anna. The narrator himself is an odd fellow. He is supremely indifferent to all aspects of his life. From his loving wife to his perfect children, he feels almost nothing and strives to understand why he feels so dead inside. When he meets Anna, he becomes alive in a frightening instant and becomes obsessed with her in a way that is truly out of character for him, and truly worrisome to the reader.

Anna is a damaged person. She says this herself and explains to the narrator how dangerous people like her can be. She exists as a sort of repository for the narrator's growing obsession and doesn't really have any defining characteristics other than her ability to egg him on to further and further acts of madness. She is cold and calculating and seems to grow in her capacity for destruction as the narrator begins to sink into her. As he diminishes, she increases, and though he believes he's in control of everything that happens between them, in reality it is she who is in control. Something I noticed about Anna was how she passively pushes people to their extremes and then lets them believe their actions are their own idea, when in reality, she is the impetus for the destruction that takes place around her. She submits, but only when it's advantageous for her to do so, and she creates a sense of well being tempered with an acute anxiety for the narrator as she slowly strips his life away.

One could argue that all this destruction comes from the narrator himself, that he is, in fact, the hinge upon which all this madness rests. In my opinion, that would be to simple an assessment, for there's something about Anna that inspires rational people to do irrational things. In her quiet acquiescence she gives power and freedom to all sorts of malevolent ideas that seem to overtake people. Though she is rational and seems benign, she quietly unlocks all the secret desires of the people around her and sends them spinning out of control. The scariest thing about this is that Anna knows who and what she is and what she can do, and though she warns the narrator, she also strangely clings to him in an effort to live out her secret desire for domination. She is powerful, but also quiet and seemingly demure, her cacophony of malignancy resting just below a placid surface.

I felt a lot of discomfort reading this book, due to the curious sense of detachment exhibited by its characters, and when this all-consuming obsession and desperation took over the story, it was almost to unbearable to read about. The mental changes the narrator goes through are rather chilling and alarming, and by the time I turned the final page, I was unsettled and disturbed in way that bothered me but also made me wonder at Hart's awesome capacity for creating her story. Though our narrator has had his life, family and livelihood ripped away by his savage obsession with Anna, he still doesn't regret what he's done and still hungers for her both physically and mentally.

I loved this book, not only for its masterful style but for Hart's ability to get under my skin like a splinter and stay there. A lot of the book is written in a very direct and quiet way, but the story is chaotic and formidable, and it left me feeling vulnerable and unsettled in some vaguely strange ways. I think those readers who are looking for something that will riddle them with complex feelings and those who enjoy books that are deft yet sparse would love this one. I know I'm looking forward to reading more from Hart because I think she has an incredible narrative gift and the ability to create characters whose coldness is wondering and impeccable.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Doctor and the Diva by Adrienne McDonnell — 432 pgs

Book CoverLiving in Boston in 1906, Erica Von Kessler has high hopes of being an opera star. Her husband, Peter, has a differing opinion of Erica's career choice and is constantly herding her from one doctor to another in hopes of having their fertility issues resolved. When Erica and Peter engage the services of Dr. Ravell, Peter is very hopeful that Ravell's incredible advancements in the field will solve their problem once and for all. But Erica is far from being hopeful and it's her despondency over her infertility that prompts Dr. Ravell to make an extreme decision that will drastically alter all three of their lives forever. After the fateful decision of Dr. Ravell fails to bear fruit, Erica and Peter begin to grow apart and they once again rely upon the doctor to help them conceive a child together. When Erica's dreams of being an opera star begin to come to fruition, Peter, Ravell and Erica step into a dance of secrecy, deceit, and complicity that weave them together more tightly than any natural bond could ever hope to. Part historical drama and part love story, The Doctor and the Diva explores the conflicting desires of two men and one woman whose dream of the perfect child might just be their downfall.

I had serious reservations about this book stemming mainly from the feelings the title gave me. Knowing nothing other than the title, I had expected this book to be more of a bodice-ripper rather than any type of serious piece of literature. What I found was actually very surprising, because McDonnell's skill brought forth a lot of sensitive issues and imbued them with a relevance and resonance that I found to be not only abundantly entertaining, but also very provocative and thoughtful.

The situation early in the book between Erica and her husband was rather alarming. Erica's sole ambition is to become an opera singer and she was born with a voice to give this dream power. But Peter won't hear of Erica doing anything other than preparing herself to bear his offspring and forces her to consult with doctor after doctor in order to fulfill his desires. I was sad for Erica and felt that Peter was taking her dreams from her with his ceaseless badgering. The book made me feel a little angry at the realization that during this period in history, a woman existed solely to fulfill the desires of her husband and not much else. I grew apprehensive that Peter would end up controlling Erica's life and that her chance to sing would be extinguished. I didn't want Erica to get pregnant, because by doing so, she would be feeding Peter's ambition to control her life, and I felt that Erica didn't deserve that.

When Peter and Erica meet Ravell, things begin to change. Far from being a proponent of Peter's ideas, he sees a side of Erica that no one else seems to. When he questions her about her desire to have a child, she admits that it's something that she wants but it's not the only thing, and that because she has been repeatedly thwarted in her efforts, she has now become focused on the opera. When Ravell makes his decision to do the impossible for Erica and Peter, he sets into motion a series of events that are irrevocable and intense. He will give Erica what she wants, in every sense, but to do this, he must not only deceive her, he must also pay the price for his actions. As Peter and Erica's lives begin to move in harmony, Ravell's begins to fall apart, and it's arguable whether this is Ravell's due.

After a time, the three cross paths again, yet everything about them and their situations has changed. Curiously, Ravell remains dogged in efforts to please them both, though they both want very different things. In this respect, Ravell reveals his selflessness and altruism, but one can see that his motives are not always pure. As Ravell moves in and out of the couple's lives, he gives and takes in equal measure, and though Peter and Erica make their own choices, it's easy to see Ravell's hand in everything they do. These characters are all very interesting specimens, because while you can root for them and dream with them, they can also be very selfish and self-serving. In a few cases they can even become villains, though they all share this role equally. It's easy to see why they do the things that they do, but underneath, it's also easy to see how wrong they are.

When the book reaches it's final section, three lives have come full circle, and it is time for dues to be paid. This is one thing I most liked about the book. No one gets off scot-free, no one can say that they've not had to make sacrifices and adjustments. There's an undercurrent of perfectly culled drama running through this story and it remains intact without ever getting hysterical or overblown. These characters grow and change and their lives become much more than they had been. The three are also somewhat diminished by their experiences as well, which is a point I feel was handled beautifully. So much gain, yet so much loss.

Though I didn't expect to love this book, the fact is that I did and I think many others will as well. It was a touching story full of interesting ideas and perplexing questions, and those readers who like to get really invested in their characters' plights will find a treasure trove to keep them satisfied. The story was complex and involving without being overly florid and the book had the distinct advantage of being a bit on the unpredictable side. I know I'm going to be looking forward to reading more from this author and I urge you not to let the title of this book run you off. A surprisingly good read.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Weekend Cooking: The I Hate to Cook Book: 50th Anniversary Edition by Peg Bracken

Book CoverSome women just don't feel at home in the kitchen. Instead of finding solace in cooking a great meal for their families, they dread having to succumb to the endless chore of meal making. The I Hate to Cook Book is just the book for them. Actually, it's for all of us, for reasons I shall soon explain. While this is a cookbook for rather reluctant cooks, it's also a great piece of comic literature that digresses on the reasons women don't like to cook and some of the fundamental misunderstandings that go along with being a non-cook. With witty and wry delivery, Peg Braken reveals why vegetables cannot be disguised into other more interesting foodstuffs no matter what you do to them, as well as the stubborn persistence of leftovers, while also interspersing some unique and easy recipes into the clever mix. The book is divided into sections that include entrees, side dishes and the aforementioned vegetables (in which several types are drowned in cheese sauce).

I actually decided to try two of these recipes and first went with the Skid Row Stroganoff. Making the stroganoff was a cinch, requiring only a few basic ingredients, and the family really loved it. Actually, they fought over the last few servings, and voices were raised, much to my chagrin. My husband took some of the leftovers to work and was very happy to find that the flavors really soaked in overnight, making it even better the second time around. I am not choosing to post that recipe and picture, because frankly, though it was delicious, it was unfortunately not very photogenic.

The second recipe I tried was the Chicken Rice Roger, which was also surprisingly easy and tasted great. Everyone loved the bed of mushroom garlic rice that the chicken was cooked in, and even I ate much more than I should have. The chicken was pretty good too, but we all felt that it would have benefited from a more liberal dose of seasoning. This second dish was nice because it was basically the type of recipe that you could throw into a pan, put in the oven and serve without further preparation. If you are a fan of easy chicken and rice recipes, give this one a try:

Chicken Rice Roger
  • flour
  • vegetable oil
  • 2 1/2 pound fryer (or 2 1/2 pounds breasts or thighs)
  • 3/4 cup uncooked rice
  • salt, pepper
  • 1 tablespoon grated onion (or half a garlic clove, minced)
  • 6.5 ounce can of mushrooms
  • 2 chicken bouillon cubes dissolved in 1 3/4 cups water
  • 1/2 stick butter
Flour and then brown the chicken in a little vegetable oil. While it browns, put the rice, salt, and pepper in a greased casserole dish and strew the grated onion about (I used garlic, instead). Add the mushrooms, juice and all. Arrange the chicken artfully on top, pour the bouillon over it, and dot with the butter. Cover and bake at 350 for one hour.

I liked this book a lot, and found that not only was it funny and sarcastic, it had some delicious and easy meals scattered throughout as well. Though I'm the type of person who loves to be in the kitchen, I got a lot out of this book and think it would be great for all types of cooks. Even if these recipes don't seem like the types of things you would enjoy, the book is an interesting form of comedy that pokes fun at both those who are kitchen savvy and those that are not.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rouges, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean by Susan Casey — 352 pgs

Book CoverSusan Casey is on the hunt for the elusive and destructive giant wave. These massive and calamitous giants are a seafarer's most unpredictable enemy and have been responsible for untold devastation and ruin through the ages. Rumors of these giant waves have abounded for centuries, but because the equipment with which to measure them has only been in existence for a short time, these tales have remained just rumors. As Casey explores the possibility of giant waves, she immerses herself into the tow surfing culture, a group of extreme surfing daredevils led by Laird Hamilton, who use jet skis to launch themselves into the paths of 80 foot waves, and travel hundreds of miles to find the elusive hundred-footer they long to ride. Casey also seeks out scientists and wave specialists to educate herself and her readers on the phenomenon of these monstrous waves and finds what the formation of these rouges says about climate change and undersea plate tectonics. Shifting perspectives between the hair-raising exploits of the tow surfers and the more sedate offices of some of the foremost wave researchers, Casey sheds light on a little known and frightening phenomenon lurking in the troubled ocean.

I have a very strange relationship with non-fiction. Though I'm usually very choosy when it comes to non-fiction reads, I've lately begun to branch out due to my success with the genre and find that I'm really receptive to non-fiction as a whole. It gives my brain a little more to chew on, and though I am not an expert in retaining the facts these books present, I find that non-fiction gives me a lot of information about previously untried subjects. All that being said, there are just some books that I find too dense and scientific to be able to properly enjoy and understand, and though there were sections of this book that I devoured, there were others which I fear went right over my head. I'm certainly no expert on the ocean, or waves for that matter, and though Casey did an amazing job elucidating her subject matter, I had some periods of utter confusion while reading this book.

What I really enjoyed about this book was the focus on the tow surfers. These were serious dudes who respected the ocean and its massive waves but were not afraid to put their lives on the line to catch the perfect monster curl. I had a lot of respect for Hamilton and his crew and was holding my breath each time they paddled out and got on their boards. There was a lot of carnage in these sections and Casey had a way of making these recollections seem breathtaking and sometimes surreal. It seems crazy to me that these men were willing to take these kinds of risks, but Casey and the surfers explain it in a way that is completely understandable, and as a reader, I could accept that though the risks were great, the thrill of the ride and the hunt for the perfect wave could be life-altering for the surfers.

When the book got into the realm of explaining the science behind rouge waves, I began to feel a little lost. There was a lot here to digest and some of it went beyond a lay person's capacity for understanding. I did get a majority of the reasoning and science, but at times I tuned out a little and became frustrated by the heavy extrapolating. Casey explains how these unpredictable waves have caused massive devastation in the form of tsunamis and how even big oil corporations can be taken unaware and adversely affected. It seems a lot of the early wave science was trial and error, and I gathered that there is no real way for anyone to know exactly when a giant wave could come rolling in. Estimations and plotting can be done, but the prediction of giant waves is not an accurate science as of yet. When Casey speaks to Al Osborne, he does a great job explaining just how a rouge wave forms and acts, and it was in this easy and common description that I began to appreciate the nuances of waves and the terrible power they wield.

Not only does Casey talk with the tow surfers and the scientists, she also speaks with people who have been a witness to the giant waves and finds out just what living through one of these events is like. It sounds truly terrifying and I found it amazing that there are people who have not only seen a giant wave, but who have survived it. There was also, apparently, a contest sponsored by a well known surfing company to award a monetary prize to the surfer who successfully rode a hundred-foot wave. This stuck me as insanity, and because of this, many surfers were seriously injured. The Laird Hamilton faction most intelligently frowned upon this contest, but it didn't stop some surfers from trying to ride a wave they most certainly weren't ready for. These bits of the book were like candy to me, and I couldn't help reading them over and over, trying to gauge the monstrosity that can come from a hundred-foot wave.

Though this book was a little harder for me to digest than most of the non-fiction I've read, I still consider it a great success because I learned so much about rouge waves and the people who've encountered them, either in their work or in their play. While some of the sections that revolved around the science behind the waves was rather intimidating, the exploits of the tow surfers really made me want to stick with the book and continue on the journey. Casey has done something marvelous in this book, and readers who love unpredictable non-fiction will love it. As for me, well, I just want to shake Laird Hamilton's hand.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

CSN Stores Giveaway

As promised, I'm hosting a giveaway for a mini shopping spree over at CSN Stores. If you haven't already checked out their site, you should! They have some amazing things on offer, including exercise equipment, bookshelves and furniture, handbags and laptop bags, and all kinds of housewares. CSN Stores has a great selection of all kinds of fun stuff, and I'm excited to be able to offer one lucky reader a $60.00 gift certificate to use on any of their products. They are throwing in free shipping as well, which is great because that means more money to spend on the products that entice you! If you'd like a chance to win this mini shopping spree, all you have to do is submit your name and email address using the form below. Good Luck to all entrants! The winner of this drawing will be chosen on December 1st.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall - 602 pgs

Book CoverGolden Richards is overwhelmed. Living his life as a polygamist Mormon, Golden has four wives, each of whom present him with different difficulties, and twenty-seven unruly children whose behavior closely resembles a tribe of lemmings. Golden, a shy and reserved man, is having trouble resigning himself to the life he has chosen to lead and finds himself leaning towards thoughts of an extramarital affair. But as can be expected, just when he arrives at a decision, his life quickly begins to spiral our of control. One of his wives is becoming increasingly distraught at the lack of attention he gives to her, while one begins to rule the roost with an iron fist. His eleven year old son Rusty is on a campaign of misbehavior and deviance that makes even the most seasoned of the mothers blush, and Golden finds himself secretly working as a contractor building a whorehouse. As Golden tries to navigate his crazy existence, he discovers that nothing is simple, easy or concise. As his family wiggles its way into more and more complicated situations, it will be up to Golden to herd them all into some semblance of order. Outrageous, hilarious and at times very sad, The Lonely Polygamist is a luminescent novel of startling clarity and wonderful originality.

I fell in love with this book from its very first pages. Golden and his family were just a hot mess to read about. From the warring factions of children wearing down the dining room carpet into a racetrack to Rusty's absconding with a box full of the other children's shoes during a showdown with one of his mothers, there was scarcely a bit of the text that was not imbued with something outrageous. Though the book was filled with all kinds of unlikely events, it never felt over the top or forced. Instead, Udall began building the crescendo of the plot into a towering and unpredictable story that filled the pages with deft humor and unexpected humbleness.

One of the things I liked most about this book was the way that Udall seemed to capture so many emotions so well in his story. There was humor, of course, but also despondency, sadness, humility, wonder and honesty. He manages to capture all the frailties of Golden's life with a clear and no-nonsense forthrightness. There isn't a lot of time spent in pointless cogitation, because frankly, a man with four wives and twenty-seven children just doesn't have that kind of time. Instead, Golden and his family soldier on, meeting the troubles of their lives head on. Before reading this book, I couldn't even begin to imagine what life as a polygamist Mormon would be like, but with Udall's colorful interpretation of Golden and his family, I quickly began to get the picture. All the aspects of plural marriage were described in such a way as to not only educate the reader, but to pull them into the lives of this unlikely tribe called a family.

Udall got full use and range out of his characters, penning them with ferocity and originality and leaving no room to wonder about their thoughts and motives. I think I liked Rusty the best. He was just a crazy little dude with imagination and hormones racing ahead at full speed. Every time I saw his story on the page, I knew I would just be wafted away in his tenacity and indignance, and his sections had me laughing out loud with astonishment and glee. I think everyone can relate to Rusty. Who can forget being eleven and being at the mercy of restrictive parents and cruel siblings? Rusty gets himself into a great many unlikely situations and always seems to handle himself with a certain forced composure that I relished. From his crush on one of the mothers to the incident with his older sister's underwear, Rusty is an undeniably original and wonderful creation.

Though the book is often funny, Udall does a great job dabbling with more serious emotions. As Golden struggles to find his way, he loses himself in the impossible sadness that his life has brought him. From the unexpected deaths of two of his children to the fruitless wishing for freedom, Golden has much more to worry about than his wild and extensive brood. I think that most people have a certain perception of polygamists but Golden doesn't fit that mold at all. He is self-disparaging, meek and wayward, clumsily leading his family along like a blind general. Golden is just as fallible as any man, but what's refreshing is his humbleness and modesty. He wants to be able to give his family his all, to give them sustenance and be their protection, but he finds himself stumbling under the load that he has accepted, fruitlessly losing all composure just when he needs it most.

I can't say how wonderful and enriching this book was. Not only did I find myself snorting with laughter, I also found myself teary-eyed with grief while reading it. Udall's book is filled with richness and complexity and has some of the most unforgettable characters I have ever come across. Do yourself a favor and pick up this wonderful novel, you'll be glad you did! A perfect light read.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Salvation City by Sigrid Nunez — 288 pgs

Book CoverCole is living in a world ravaged by disease. In a future not far removed from our own, all hell has broken loose and a pandemic flu virus has decimated the world population. After having lost both his parents to the illness and barely surviving it himself, Cole is placed in an orphanage and forgotten. But just when he's started to give up hope, he begins to receive visits from an evangelical pastor who wants to take him home and arrange for an adoption. Cole's parents having been fierce atheists, he knows nothing about organized religion and so finds himself at a crossroads in relation to his spiritual leanings. Though Cole is initially skeptical and cold, he does leave the orphanage with Pastor Wyatt and comes to value life in the small community called Salvation City. Pastor Wyatt acts as a loving father to Cole and his wife, Tracy, also takes him into her heart. Cole is home schooled and begins attending worship services and learning the bible in a perfunctory way, creating relationships in a town that seems to have escaped the more dire consequences of the pandemic. But although Cole is outward happy in this setting, he can't help the anger and fear he feels as an adolescent in flux, and when a visitor to Salvation City comes looking for the forgotten boy, Cole has to decide which path he will eventually walk. Will Cole stay with the loving pastor and his extended family, growing up to be a fixture of the church? Or will he take his chances in a world far different than the one he's known, essentially giving up his safety for his freedom? Sigrid Nunez explores these complicated issues in Salvation City with sensitivity and clarity, leaving readers to puzzle out the complexities of a new world scoured by infirmity and madness, where nothing is as it once was.

This is the second YA1 book I've read in as many months, and while I like getting a feel for the genre and think YA books hold a lot of appeal to me as a reader, this one didn't meet with as much success as the first book I tried. I really liked the premise and the storytelling and felt that the plot posed a lot of interesting questions to the reader, but one thing that definitely rubbed me the wrong way was the unending angst of the protagonist, Cole. I've said before that I don't deal well with too many angst issues in the books I read, and I think it has a lot to do with the fact that I have two teenagers at home and I get my recommended dose of angst daily, thank you very much. Too much angst isn't edgy or complicated, it's just tiresome. When it's repetitive, like it is here, it can be frustrating to read.

In a series of flashbacks, we meet Cole and his parents. Cole is unendingly angry with them for all sorts of reasons that I could never quite fathom. He doesn't want his mom to hug him or his dad to take an interest in the things he does. He hates to read books. When the pandemic hits, Cole is left with even more anger then before and becomes a ward of the state as an orphan. There was never sufficient explanation as to why Cole was so angry; he just was, which was frustrating. At times I could accept this anger as the due process of being a teenager, and at times Cole's anger was justified. The problem was that for most of the book, he veered from ambivalence to anger in a way that I found grating. In later sections, Cole becomes a more understanding person and starts to let his heart open to the possibility of love that Pastor Wyatt and his wife want to provide, but by that point, I was annoyed with Cole and couldn't get in line with his new transformation.

This book deals very with religion and spirituality in a very interesting way. The residents of Salvation City are spiritual people but they aren't goody-goodies. They have the same problems as everyone else does and they deal with them in much the same way. Though at times they can be naive, they are, on the whole, well adjusted and decent people. There is some talk of Pastor Wyatt engaging in acts of aggressive proselytizing, but for the most part, he's just a man who wants to do the right thing and be good to those around him. As Cole becomes closer to him, he finds in Pastor Wyatt a man that he comes to feel is a father to him. Later, Cole begins to find this relationship suspect (no surprise there) and feels that he may have been misled by the pastor and his wife. This spurs him to think about leaving Salvation City behind for a chancier future. This is another thing I didn't really understand. Cole seemed to be happy and was adjusting well, and then all of a sudden, he takes a different viewpoint. I'm well aware that this shift in attitude came from a visit from an unexpected quarter, but it seemed simple to see that Cole was living a good life and was very loved by the people around him. Why did he want to leave all that? Again, I blame the angst.

There were some points on which I understood what Cole was going through. When he begins to question a God that would let his mother and father perish because they were not saved, I could empathize with his fear and confusion. What afterlife awaits those who are not believers? I've asked myself this question many times, and found that I was just as worried and apprehensive when Nunez explored this issue as when I had studied it on my own. It's a tough thing to confront the gray issues of your spirituality and Nunez does this exceptionally well. I didn't get the feeling that she was making judgements, just exploring issues that seem to be difficult for a lot of people to understand. I have to say that I'm of the mind that the God I believe in doesn't make those kinds of distinctions, but again, the logic behind these questions seems valid to me.

While I had some very troublesome issues with this book, I feel that the writing and subject matter were presented very well. Aside from my reactions to Cole, this was a book that made me think about some rather interesting issues regarding religion. I wouldn't exactly call it dystopian literature, as it's packaging suggests, and would have to say that this book was more of a character study. So while there was a lot going on, it really felt more of a character driven read than a plot driven one. If you're not troubled by the angst that so clearly seems to be a problem with me, you might enjoy this read.

1 The author asserts that this is not a Young Adult title. Noted.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Human Bobby by Gabe Rotter — 304 pgs

Book CoverBobby Flopowski is a man who has it all. He is a successful physician sharing a thriving pediatric practice with a good friend, has a beautiful and loving wife, and a newborn so who is the light of his life. Bobby is wealthy, attractive, and happy, but that's all about to change. When a chance encounter with an old friend begins to stir up long-forgotten emotions in Bobby, he takes a chance and invites a person into his life who is now basically a stranger. At first, the only complications seem to be his wife's unhappiness and growing unease, but after a party one night in the Flopowski home, his life is changed forever. Now Bobby is living on the street and taking shelter in a tent once meant for grander things. Carrying only the most meager of possessions, Bobby begins his life anew. But when he catches sight of a person from his now forgotten and more successful life, Bobby starts asking questions about what really happened that night and comes to find he doesn't like the answers. Now he's on a mission to take back the life he forfeited, but when he starts delving into his past, he comes up with some surprising and frightening conclusions which make hm question everything he thought he knew. In this utterly involving and nail-biting new novel, Gabe Rotter gives his readers a look into the life of a man who once had it all and watched it slowly spiral devastatingly down the drain.

This is a book that I feel many people don't know about. Heck, even I had never heard of it before meeting Kathy at SIBA, where she just raved about it. Since hearing what she had to say about it, I've only read one other review, but I think it's a book that definitely needs more attention drawn to it. Not only is the plot twisting and intriguing, but Bobby was a character that a reader can really get attached to and root for.

Bobby is a regular guy who has a pretty extraordinary life. He's not an egotist or a control freak. He's just a guy who has worked hard for all the advantages that he has in his life and knows how to appreciate them. Bobby is easy to sympathize with but sometimes he makes stupid decisions. In getting to know this character, I could see why he did the things he did but I didn't agree with him. I wanted to slap and shake him sometimes and force him to do things differently. He goes from the top dog to the underdog rather quickly in this tale, and though it seems that the path he should travel is pretty clear, Bobby goes in precisely the opposite direction. His frustration at the change in his life is palpable, and like a lot of people, Bobby acts rashly in trying to gain control of an uncontrollable situation.

When the plot finagles it's way back into the present, we finally get a look at the new life Bobby has created for himself. He is wise and contrite, yes, but he's also a shell of the man he used to be. He lives among the homeless population eating out  of trash cans and cleans himself in the showers at the beach. But through all of this, he is still fundamentally Bobby and he makes an impact in his community by befriending others and even giving a little free medical advice. This new Bobby doesn't spend a lot of time worrying about the things he can't change and he even finds a measure of peace in the life he now lives. All that begins to change when Bobby's past comes flying right into his face and the once forgotten dreams and desires come writhing up painfully for him to confront.

One of the things that I liked most about this book was the immediate and visceral feel of the writing. Everything feels portentous and there's a quality of urgency in the way Rotter tells his story. I never got bored with this tale, and part of that has to do with the fact that Bobby was such an interesting guy to observe and inhabit; but the other part of it is that both the plot and the writing spin out effortlessly and kept me locked in until the final pages. There's a mix of playfulness and gravity that's impossible not to admire. In the beginning of the story things are so carefree and happy, and Bobby's charisma is out in full force, then, as things progress, the mood takes a definite downward spiral and our once funny and candid Bobby is reduced to seeming nothingness.

There is a lot of this book that I have to gloss over because giving too much away would definitely ruin the story. What I can say is that this is the type of book where nothing is as it seems. People's motives are suspect, situations are not what you think they are, and Bobby is right in the middle of a big mess. The story moves back and forth in time, scanning the past and blending it with the present beautifully. When all the puzzle pieces begin to fall into place, there is shock and a new understanding of both Bobby and the world he lives in. Rotter manages to hold the incredible suspense in this novel to the very last sentence, and even then, savvy readers will wonder if this might not be the end of Bobby's journey.

Gabe Rotter has another book out there called Duck, Duck, Wally, and now that I've seen what he can do, I'm itching to give that book a try as well. There's a lot to love about The Human Bobby and readers who love to get caught up in an involving tale that is both inviting and sinuous will love this book. I don't think I'll be able to forget Bobby and his strange predicament for quite some time, and I urge readers who may me unfamiliar with this book or author to give it a try and see what you think for yourself!

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Hub City Bookshop, Spartanburg, SC

One of the best parts of attending the SIBA trade show in September was getting the chance to rub elbows with all kinds of interesting bookish people and make some new friends along the way. I have to say that meeting Erin Haire, manager of Hub City Bookshop, was one of the highlights of my trip. Erin is a fiercely funny and intelligent person, and I had a wonderful time getting to spend the weekend with her. She has great comic timing, and most of the time I spent with her I was cracking up. One reason I think you should also become familiar with Erin is because she runs one of the more unique and interesting independent bookstores in the South.

Hub City Bookshop is located in Spartanburg, South Carolina and caters to the upscale reader. The selection of books it carries is hand-picked and vetted by the staff, and Hub City Bookshop knows its customers' tastes very well. The store is staffed by a handful of employees and they are not only extremely knowledgeable about the books they carry, they're always ready to give a recommendation. Hub City Bookshop also organizes some fabulous author events, including readings and signings, and they maintain a strong online presence as well.

What makes Hub City Bookshop so interesting is its quirks. The upper floor of the building it occupies is a Masonic Lodge, and despite Erin's curiosity, she's never been up there. They also share the building with a coffee shop and a bakery, so hungry readers or those who need to get their caffeine fix needn't wander far. Also, all of Hub City's profits go toward nourishing creative writing education and independent publishing in the surrounding community. They are operated by the non-profit Hub City Writers Project and also have their own press that specializes in books that have a Southern feel. In addition to all this, they have a writer-in-residence and have just published the very charming and wonderful book, My Only Sunshine by Lou Dischler (review coming soon!). All in all, Hub City Bookshop seems to have its finger on the pulse of all aspects of the book trade, from creation to subsidy to handselling, and its one place I know a bibliophile like myself could spend hours, if not days, perusing.

If you ever get the chance to wander around in Spartanburg, Hub City Bookshop is one place you'll not want to miss. And while you're there, you can tell Erin that I said Hi!

Friday, November 5, 2010

STORM by Dave Pearson — 290 pgs

Today on Raging Bibliomania, we have a little something different. A few months ago, I approached my husband, Frank, and asked him if he would like to take a shot at reviewing a book for me. I let him choose the book and was really excited that he was going to be participating in this blogging thing I love so much. Though Frank is a pretty creative guy, he's never really willingly done what amounts to a book report for fun before, so I was both pleased and eager to see what he had to think about his choice, STORM by Dave Pearson. I'd like to share his review with you today and hope that in the future you will again see the occasional review from Frank. So here he is, discussing STORM.

John Newark has a past he thought was long forgotten. Now after twenty uneventful years, it's caught up to him. The leader of STORM, the hacking group he belonged to at age fifteen and which he believed fell apart when one of their number was arrested, has found and recruited him to finish the job that was started two decades ago. But this hack isn't about downloading the next blockbuster video game before it's released. The target is Compound 5, a top-secret, high-security military installation in the South Pacific with a direct link to the U.S. Intelligence Community's secure intranet, the Intelink. And unlike most hacks, this one will require the team's physical presence on-site. This pits STORM against the military's most elite counter-terrorism unit, the Navy SEALs DEVGRU. Packed with realistic depictions of military resources and operations, STORM promises to be an edge-of-your-seat cyber thriller.

I'm a computer geek with very little interest in things military. I was expecting a cyber-thriller with a military flavor, which I thought would be interesting. The book is actually, in my opinion, a military account of a computer intrusion with a good deal of first-person exposition from the intruder's perspective for flavor. As one might guess, I didn't particularly enjoy it.

What mainly turned me off was that much of it was written like a military account, laden with detail . Even the most minor characters were identified by full name (and rank), making each and every one look like they have an important role to fill. Commander Christopher Toms, a forty-five year old special warfare veteran, has about a dozen lines in one scene and is never heard from again. I can only assume he's unmarried, as there's no mention of a family.

That's not to say the entire book was un-enjoyable. I did find the chapters focusing on STORM to be interesting. Although some of the tech was pure fiction, it was mostly grounded in reality and read well. Newark is a believable and likable protagonist even if the supporting characters aren't as fully developed. Even the military-focused chapters weren't poorly done. They could be the most authentic portrayals in the book, for all I know.

This novel is billed as a cyber-thriller, which is why I agreed to review it, but its target audience is definitely military enthusiasts. As such, it wasn't a very good read for me but I think it would be a hit with its intended audience. If you self-identify as a computer geek, don't be fooled; stay away.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Substitute Me by Lori L. Tharps — 368 pgs

Book Cover Kate is about to return to her high powered ad-exec job after a six month maternity leave for her newborn son, Oliver. Though she's a very caring and devoted mother, Kate feels a void in her life that can only be filled by resuming her career. When she discovers the perfect nanny named Zora, things seem to be looking up for her. Zora is a godsend to Kate. A thirty year old woman who has had a vast amount of experience with children, Zora is having difficulty deciding what she wants to do with her life. While Kate rushes off to her job, Zora begins to fall in love with little Oliver and starts to do more and more around the house to make up for Kate's absence. But being an African-American nanny working for a white employer seems to make Zora and Kate's husband Brad very uncomfortable. Zora is keeping her position with the Kate and Brad a secret from her family, who would be appalled that she has taken a job as a servant to a white couple, but she can't deny that she finds the job fulfilling. Meanwhile, Zora and Kate form a bond that Kate would like to see stretch further, and Zora begins also to cook and feed the family, becoming, in effect, the perfect nanny and substitute for Kate. When Kate takes on a few extra jobs at the office, Zora is left playing a major role at the house and soon finds that her job is putting her in a very bad position with certain members of the family. This leads to an explosive and shocking series of events that neither the married twosome nor Zora saw coming. Both timely and eye-opening, Substitute Me tells a story of two women who want to have it all and the consequences that having it all can manifest.

I wasn't sure I was going to like this book, and like a lot of the books I have been reading in the past few months, it took me a little time to warm up to both the story and the characters. There are a lot of books now that have sort of burst out of the mold of chick-lit and into more of the area of women's fiction, and I felt this book straddled both of these genres. I guess I consider chick-lit a more fluffy variety of women's fiction that stays away from more serious issues, whereas women's fiction tends to be more relevant and tackles the more serious sides of life. Substitute Me was somewhere in-between, and though it started off with a very chick-lit feel, it ended up morphing into a more serious and thought-provoking piece of fiction.

This book was essentially the story of two very different women and was told in alternating chapters from both viewpoints. Kate, the career woman who wants it all, seems to have only slight difficulty handing the reins of her household to another woman. She deliberates with herself about this for maybe two seconds and decides that she would rather further herself in the business world than stay at home raising her son. It's made clear to the reader very early on that this is not a situation that has to do with money. Kate and Brad could still live extravagantly without Kate's income but Kate feels like there's something tangible she will be sacrificing by not returning to her career. I didn't necessarily feel that Kate was being selfish, but it would be easy to get that impression in light of the fact that she continues to climb the corporate ladder as ferociously as she can and grants Zora more and more power in her household.

Zora, on the other hand, is conflicted about the type of life she wants to lead. Her parents have made it very clear that her options should be limited to prosperous and high profile jobs, which bothers Zora, whose real passion is to become a personal chef. Zora looks at her time with Oliver as a stepping stone and has no plans to remain in the world of nannydom. But she is filled with indecision and vacillates between being satisfied with her current situation and wanting to follow her dreams. The real problem isn't what Zora thinks about her situation, it's what everyone else thinks of her situation. The people she has been open with about her current employment sneer at her for her role as a nanny, pressuring her in subtle ways to leave this glorified serfdom behind and get on to better things. Her parents simply don't know about her job because Zora refuses to tell them.

There is a lot made about the racial divide between whites and blacks and the positions they hold in one another's lives and in society. It seems to be a problem that most of the nannies in New York are black and it causes a lot of tension in the storyline. I honestly never thought about it before because I don't tend to stereotype people by their skin color, but in this book it's exceedingly bad to be a black woman working as a nanny for a white family. I can see that this issue is one that I probably don't understand as well as I think I do and I'm sure that there are a lot of things I haven't considered about these types of arrangements, but I'm not so sure that these issues are all that important. The only thing that should be important is the quality of care that the nanny gives and the respect that is due to her for this care. But generalizations are made and stereotyping and mild prejudice pop their ugly heads up, and the issue of color is one that takes on great importance in the tale.

There are parts of this book I won't discuss because I think it's better to  discover them for yourself. What I will say is at times this book could be a little cliché and preachy. I felt that the same issues were tackled over-abundantly and sometimes to the point of annoyance. I liked the book, I really did, but I felt that some things should have been left on the back burner once being thoroughly discussed. Other than that small niggle, the book was solidly written and I liked that there was gravity to what I initially thought was a light story. I found the characters to be three dimensional and lifelike, and the dialogue was also rather believable.

I think this would be a great book for book clubs because there's a lot here to discuss, and I think it would be interesting to get other people's opinions on the idea of working mothers. I also think the book has a lot to say about racial stereotyping and the perceived inequalities that exist between whites and blacks, and though it does push it's messages rather hard, I do have to admit they are interesting and affecting messages. I ended up being very pleased with this book, and despite some minor problems I had with the way the story was told, I did really enjoy it overall. I would be interested in seeing what others think of it as well, so if you have read this book or are planning on it, drop me a line!

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Stash by David Matthew Klein — 384 pgs

Book Cover Gwen Raines is a thirty-something housewife with a loving husband and two small children. One sunny afternoon, Gwen makes a pit stop while running errands to pick up a small bag of marijuana for an upcoming trip. On her way home, Gwen is involved in a serious accident that leaves an elderly gentleman dead, and she is questioned by the police. When they decide to perform a drug test on Gwen, her perfectly ordered life beings to take a hideous turn. Meanwhile, Gwen's husband Brian, who works in the marketing department of a pharmaceutical company, is having a moral and ethical quandary of his own. It seems that one of his company's new drugs is being marketed as an off-label weight loss aid, and recent studies have come to light that pose problems for Brian and his company. On the other side of town, Jude Gates, the old friend whom Gwen scored the bag of marijuana from, is dancing towards the edge. Jude, a restaurant owner and father of a teenage daughter, is getting himself deeper and deeper into a world of drug trafficking that puts both his safety and future at critical risk, and his time is running out. Taut with emotional highs and psychological suspense, Stash tells the story of a group of people trapped in the gray areas between right and wrong, and the decisions that they must make when they are backed against the wall.

I have to say that I loved this book! I was surprised at how gripping it was and how involved I became in the handful of moral conundrums it presented to me. The book started off rather sedately but quickly amped up and was rollicking along at a good clip by the end of the first section. There was a lot going on, with multiple levels of intrigue and suspense scattered throughout the careful and tenebrous plot.

The position Gwen got herself into at the beginning of the book is one I think many people will relate to and understand. Gwen is not a bad person or a criminal, yet she takes an unnecessary risk and all hell breaks loose on her. Gwen was easy to sympathize with. A stay-at-home mother and member of the PTA, she didn't expressly invite danger into her life; she only wanted to let her hair down and be able to smoke a bit while she was away on vacation. What happened to Gwen was terrifying because it could happen to anyone. Though her misdeed was slight, the repercussions were life changing and severe. Gwen's happy and ordered existence was left hanging by a thread, and she seemed to make a lot of unwise decisions once this happened.

The plight of Brian's ethical conflict was more restrained, and I felt, a little less successful. Brian had a responsibility to the community in the marketing of his new drug that he swept under the table and shrugged off, posing problems for not only his career but for the unwitting people who began taking his medicine for an off-label use. I liked Brian and found him resourceful and committed to both his work and his family but I didn't understand his decision to hide the things that he did regarding the drug and its uses. Once the seriousness of the problem came to light, Brian redirected himself into doing the right thing, and I was glad for him. Brian and Gwen were both dealing with the same type of problem, only in very different arenas, and through all of it, they remained a unit focused on the outcome, sometimes sacrificing their own morals in order to get to that particular outcome.

Through the book's focus on Jude things began to take a darker turn. He seemed like a moral and upstanding guy, but as I read about him I became aware that Jude was a very shady character. He had various sides to his personality and was a good father, but he erased a lot of that goodness through manipulation and throwing his weight in undesirable directions. The thing is, I liked Jude. I liked his charm and his edginess, and I wanted so much for him to do the right thing and make a clean break from this kind of life. I think Jude wanted that too but was swept away by greed and the kinds of relationships that it can be sticky to get out of. Jude had a good heart, but his perception of right and wrong was very skewed, and this kept me in turmoil while reading about him. He was obviously a man with demons, but there existed in Jude a lot of benevolence and altruism. His was a case of a good man doing very bad things for a convincing reason, but that reason just wasn't convincing enough for me, so I was constantly at war with myself about my reactions to him.

This book presents a lot of tough questions for the reader to puzzle out for themselves. What happens when a good person does something illegal? What happens when this same action is done by someone with more sinister leanings? Is there really any distinction between the two? This book made me look at some familiar situations in a new way and made me wonder just what my friends and neighbors could be hiding behind closed doors. It made me wonder about the stringency of the law and the unintended repercussions that could take place when people try to creep over the edge of it. Mostly, it made me think about the unpredictability of life and the way that one action can change everything and leave you an outcast in the community that once respected and valued you.

Though I didn't expect it, this book really crept up on me and kept me avidly turning the pages until its explosive conclusion. It's really a much deeper story than I had first believed and has given me a lot of food for thought. It also started a lot of conversations in my house about the ideas that it so eloquently expresses. I think this book is a must for those who love psychological suspense novels as well as those who like quiet thrillers, and I am so glad to have gotten the chance to devour it. A complex and thought provoking read. Recommended.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.
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