Ambassador of Books ~ Book Club Madam ~ Blogger Gal

Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

by Muriel Spark
audio book: 4 hours
originally published in 1961

*** Official Plot Summary***

At the staid Marcia Blaine School for Girls, in Edinburgh, Scotland, teacher extraordinaire Miss Jean Brodie is unmistakably, and outspokenly, in her prime. She is passionate in the application of her unorthodox teaching methods, in her attraction to the married art master, Teddy Lloyd, in her affair with the bachelor music master, Gordon Lowther, and—most important—in her dedication to "her girls," the students she selects to be her crème de la crème. Fanatically devoted, each member of the Brodie set—Eunice, Jenny, Mary, Monica, Rose, and Sandy—is "famous for something," and Miss Brodie strives to bring out the best in each one. Determined to instill in them independence, passion, and ambition, Miss Brodie advises her girls, "Safety does not come first. Goodness, Truth, and Beauty come first. Follow me."

And they do. But one of them will betray her.

*** My Thoughts ***

I can't give too many opinions on this audio book because I didn't pay close attention to it. I listened at work, while doing other things, and often found myself having to rewind to catch parts that I missed.

That said, it was an interesting story. The narrator did an excellent job, and with a great Scottish accent as well. I wasn't particularly captivated by the characters or the plot, but I was entertained, and that is what I was looking for from this one. Plus the ending surprised me a bit ... always a good thing, I say.

The Secret of Lost Things

The Secret of Lost Things
by Sheridan Hay
audio book: 11.5 hours

I'm having a hard time reviewing this book simply because I don't get it. What was the POINT of the whole thing?*

I don't usually do this but I'm going to include the comments from Publishers Weekly here because they both summarize the story and point out some of its flaws:
Hay's debut has all the elements of a literary thriller, but they don't quite come together. Arriving in New York from Tasmania with $300, her mother's ashes and a love of reading, 18-year-old Rosemary Savage finds work in the Arcade Bookshop, a huge, labyrinthine place that features everything from overstock to rare books. In its physicality, the store greatly resembles New York's Strand (where Hay worked), and its requisite assortment of intriguing bookish oddballs includes autocratic owner George Pike and his albino assistant, Walter Geist. Rosemary is suspicious and worried when Walter enlists Rosemary's help to respond to an anonymous request to sell a hand-written version of Herman Melville's lost Isle of the Cross (a novel that in fact existed but disappeared after Melville's publisher rejected it). She confides in Oscar (the attractive, emotionally unavailable nonfiction specialist), which only hastens the deal's momentum toward disaster. Hay does a good job with innocent, intelligent Rosemary's attempts to deal with sinister doings, and methodically imagines the evolution and content of Melville's novel (which features a woman abandoned much like Rosemary's mother). Hay also ably captures Rosemary's nostalgic memories of Tasmania. The three narratives—intrigue, Melville, Tasmania—prove so different, however, that recurring themes of loss and abandonment fail to tie them together.
At the start I was very intrigued by Rosemary's story. Her life in Tasmania, her move to New York, her new job at the book shop ... I was caught up in the story and interested to see how things would progress. Unfortunately, things went downhill rather quickly and by the halfway point I was ready to call it quits. I stuck with it in the hopes that the ending would redeem it ... alas, I was wrong.

So what didn't I like about this book? Why thank you for asking - I've got a list to share with you.
  • I didn't identify with Rosemary at all. She was flighty and unsure of herself and completely willing to leave herself in other people's hands. She was needy and lonely and leeched on to certain other characters in a way I found almost unbelievable and definitely annoying. She seemed to never make a decision for herself but would rather do whatever she was told, no matter how it compromised her.
  • Rosemary's love for Oscar, despite his repeated rejection of her, was odd and irritating. What was supposed to be so appealing about this guy anyway?
  • At the center of the story is the search for a missing novel by Herman Melville. I know there are Melville fans out there but so far I'm not a one myself. I couldn't connect with the love of his writing the Rosemary developed, nor with the glowing praise of Moby Dick (which I reviewed here).
  • The various parts of the story didn't seem to connect in any way.
  • And one complaint about the audio book narrator - although she did an excellent job with the Australian accent she simply couldn't do a Spanish accent. Lillian, a character from Argentina, at times sounded French or German but never actually Spanish.
I know many of you loved this book and I read it with high hopes. I'm sorry to say that simply didn't live up to them.

*I asked the same question, albeit not so forcefully, about OSCAR WAO. After hearing the author speak, I understood the point of that book better. Maybe if I had the chance to hear Sheridan Hay discuss her book I might understand HER book better as well. Has anyone heard her? Did it add to your appreciation of the book?

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

What's On My Nightstand? ... the April '09 edition

This was supposed to go up yesterday but I just didn't get around to it ... so sorry!

One quick reminder before I get started: you have until Friday night to enter my contest for Receive Me Falling, by Erika Robuck. Click here to read Erika's guest post and to enter the contest.

And now ... What's On My Nightstand? (actually, what is around my house, car, office, etc.)

*** My Carry-Along Book ***

The Lost Men: The Harrowing Saga of Shackleton's Ross Sea Party, by Kelly Tyler-Lewis - this is a FANTASTIC book about the lesser known portion of Shackleton's Antarctic expedition in the early 1900s. You can read a summary here. I've been interested in polar travel for quite some time ... not sure why, as I hate being cold and would NEVER, in my WILDEST DREAMS want to go to either pole. But the book is great and I'm really enjoying it.

*** In My Car ***

The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America, but Russell Shorto - I'm enthralled with this audio book. It delves into the origins of the Manhattan colony in the early 1600s (I think that is the time period, but I can't recall for sure at the moment) and shows how American history has ignored the Dutch contributions there. Much of American history focuses on English influences to the exclusion or many other cultures. This audio book is educating and entertaining me on my rides in the car.

*** In the Bathroom ***

Evelina: or The History of a Young Lady's Entrance into the World, by Fanny Burney - I'm still working on this one from last month. I'm really enjoying it though! It was originally published in 1778.

*** In My Office at Work ***

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark - I'm listening to this when time permits. The story is interesting but I can't give it my full attention because, you know, I have to, actually, work ...

*** On My Desk ***

Red Rain, by Tim Wendel - Here's what I said last month: "I started this WWII novel a while ago but it didn't really capture my attention at the time. I've put it aside for now but I do intend to finish it next month. It is based on a little-known story about the Japanese use of hot-air-balloon bombs that they sent across the ocean to the US West Coast." And no, I haven't touched it since then.


Those are the books occupying my attention at the moment. And here is a list of what I'm planning to read soon:

The Triumph of Deborah (sent by the author)
The Secret Doorway (sent by the publicist)
The Secret Keeper (for a blog tour in June)
Little Bee (for book club in June)

What books are YOU focused on right now? Tell me about them in the comments! And for more Nightstand posts, check out 5 Minutes for Books.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Your thoughts on AWAY?

Hi all. I need some input please. I'm on the first CD of the audio version of Amy Bloom's novel AWAY and I want to know if it is worth continuing. Have any of you read/listened to it?

I was intrigued by the reviews I read a few months back but I'm really not getting into the story at this point. One thing that is bothering me is the omniscient narrator. I feel like I'm hopping from one character's head to another (which I am) and getting a bit dizzy in the process. Plus I'm not feeling connected to the main character, Lillian.

So please tell me - does the story get better from here? Is it worth continuing? Am I wasting my time? I'd love to hear what you all think ...

Author Talk: Junot Diaz ... with video!

On April 18 part of my book club joined me at the CityLit Festival in Baltimore to hear author Junot Diaz speak. My club read his book, THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO, this month so this was an excellent opportunity for us.

There were four gals from the club, including myself, who attended. Others had read the book but couldn't make it into Baltimore that day. I recapped the meeting at my book club's blog here. That post includes quotes from several of the gals with their opinions of the book as well as our ratings.

The auditorium where Diaz spoke was PACKED. We arrived a bit early and got seats in the very back row, against the wall. Still, we did have seats - many people did not.

I'd like to point out that his name is pronounced JUNO ... I didn't know that before the talk, so maybe that will be news to some of you as well.

As I mentioned in my review of OSCAR WAO, there is lots of bad language in the book as well as lots of Spanish. I was curious to see whether Diaz would speak with that way too ... and boy, did he ever.

Diaz speaks in a very low key manner. He is slow-spoken, almost monotone, and his enunciation in unique (you can see all this in the videos). He uses lots of Spanglish and his talk was sprinkled with "yeah?" - it was like a verbal quirk, the way "um" is for some people. (After you watch the video I'd love to hear your thoughts on his reading voice - my club had different reactions to it.)

He began by standing up at the podium and saying "What are you all DOING here? It's so NICE outside .... You all are SUPER nerdy." And the audience burst into laughter (in case you don't know, the main character in OSCAR WAO is a nerd of the first degree).

After a few minutes of discussing his novel, he began to read from one of his unpublished short stories. It has to do with infidelity and it is called "The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars." He joked that his sister once told him that you could write about anything as long as you throw infidelity in there - people LOVE reading about infidelity. I've recorded his reading in the three video clips below. I will warn you that there is some bad language in there, so don't be listening to this at work or in front of the kiddos unless you have headphones.

One thing about the videos ... you may want to listen rather than watch them. I didn't have a tripod for my camera and my arms got tired rather quickly so the videos jump around a bit. Sorry 'bout that.

The first video (about 4 minutes) begins in the middle of the first sentence of the story.

I took a quick break to rest my arms and started the second video just a minute later. This one is about 4 minutes too.

This last video is just over 8 minutes. I missed the first sentence but what he was saying was that Yunior wanted to stay in the "real" Santo Domingo and experience city life but Magda wanted to stay in a resort. Fair warning - the story picks up as Yunior is trying to get Magda to have sex with him.

I actually LOVED this story in spite of the language. It was one of those stories that I can totally visualize happening in the real world. What did you think of it? One of the gals from my club thought it was better than OSCAR WAO. Some of the phrases were fantastic - my favorites include the "ambitious topiaries" line and "melanin deficit" on the beach.

After the reading Diaz took questions from the audience. One question had to do with the extensive use of Spanish in the text. This is something my club struggled with so I was very interested in hearing what he had to say about it. I recapped this discussion in a post at so I'm going to insert an excerpt from that here:
One of the things our club found challenging was the profusion of Spanish in the text. During his talk, Diaz addressed this issue. He joked that the Spanish wasn't there to make English-speakers "FEEL the immigration, sucka!" Rather, it was there as an invitation to engage other people who are out of your normal circle. He explained that his mom would understand all the Dominican references but that she'd never get all the sci-fi stuff --- she'd have to talk to a "geek" to understand that part of the story. "Groups that wouldn't normally interact are forced to talk to each other to understand the novel," said Diaz. For me, this was a very intriguing thought and it definitely added to my understanding and appreciation of the book.
If you'd like to read the rest of that recap, click here.

Another question from the audience had to do with the origin and the importance of the faceless man in OSCAR WAO. Diaz explained that your unconscious understands your novel better than you do. Often you don't know why you're putting something in but if you take it out the book makes no sense. That is what happened with him and the faceless man; he tried taking it out and the book didn't work without it.

The gals and I had a great time discussing both the book and the author's talk over lunch. We agreed that hearing an author discuss his work adds a great deal of insight into the book itself. My opinion of OSCAR WAO went up after hearing Diaz speak, and I think the same is true of several of the other gals.

All in all, my time at CityLit was a wonderful experience. I can't wait until next year's festival!


Here are a few other posts you might enjoy.

Monday, April 27, 2009

What's Becoming of Our Book Culture? ... at CityLit

I'm finally getting around to posting about the CityLit Festival in Baltimore on April 18th. The event had over 3,000 attendees and 60 exhibitors, according to their website. I had an absolutely wonderful time ... hence my difficulty in recapping it for you - there is just so much to say!

Today I'm going to share my experiences at the panel entitled "What's Becoming of Our Book Culture?" According to the program of events, this is:
A panel discussion moderated by Dave Rosenthal, the Baltimore Sun's Read Street columnist. Panelists include Deirdre Donahue, book reviewer, USA Today; David Kipen, Director, National Reading Initiatives, National Endowment for the Arts; Natalie Stokes, Associate Publisher, Black Classics Press.
Due to my cab driver not knowing how to get to the largest library in Baltimore (seriously?!), I arrived a few minutes late for this panel and missed the beginning of the discussion. I also missed getting a place to prop up my camera to keep it steady while I recorded ...

The person speaking when I arrived was Deirdre and I got my camera rolling as soon as I could - she had a lot of interesting things to say.

In this first video, Deirdre talks about her concern with the lack of truly independent mainstream book reviewers.

In the second video, David talks about his involvement with The Big Read program and his promise to eat a book. (Yes, you read that correctly!) Then the conversation veers of to a discussion of Kindles, audio books, and other alternate forms of books. The video cuts off when my battery died.

The discussion continued for about 30 minutes after this. One big topic was how to reach younger readers. Below are some of the comments from the panel:
  • David Kipen described books by Stephenie Meyer and JK Rowling as "gateway drugs" for young readers - kids who read them will eventually branch out into other similar book, then (over time) to different genres. Natalie Stokes added that kids and teens tend to stick with one topic/series/author until they bored, then they look for other books to read.
  • Dierdre Donahue feels that teens are most interested in books their parents don't want them to read. She only half-jokingly suggested that parents/adults should make reading seem controversial and subversive, and not encourage it so much - it appears "goody-goody" to kids and they don't want to do it.
  • There was a discussion about how to reach teen boys - graphic novels were highly recommended.
This was an excellent panel discussion and I'm sorry to have missed the first few minutes. The panelists were knowledgeable and well-spoken, the audience was interested and involved, and the topics were relevant and important. Great job everyone!

I hope you enjoyed this glimpse of CityLit. I'll have another post up soon with details and videos from the Junot Diaz talk I attended later in the day.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Wheel of Time: New Plot Summary!

More exciting news about Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series!

First ...
The back cover blurb from the upcoming release of A Memory of Light, Part One: The Gathering Storm has been posted at this site.

I'm so excited! I'll be listening to book 11 in October and preordering A Memory of Light as soon as I can ... I can't wait to get my hands on it.

And second ...
I missed the first annual Robert Jordan/Wheel of Time convention in Georgia earlier this month and boy do I wish I could have been there! Check out the recaps posted by these three attendees for an idea of the fun we missed out on:
Leigh, blogger for
Richard Fife, guest blogger for
Jason, site guru for
plus the official news from JordanCon

Brandon Sanderson has promised to post a recap soon as well - I'll be sure to link to it once it is up.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Has Reading Changed Your Life?

Check out this fabulous book trailer for HOW TO BUY A LOVE OF READING. If you have a story about how reading changed your life be sure to submit it through the author's website.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Giving up on another book ...

I've tried, really I have, but FICTION, by Ara 13, just isn't the right book for me at the moment. It is not actually bad though, which is part of the problem. Rather, it is strange and slow-building and somewhat confusing ... and at the moment I need simple, entertaining, and interesting.

The book has 227 pages and I've read 44 of them - enough for me to say "I quit" I'd say.

Friday Finds 04/24/09

One quick reminder before we get to this week's list: My contest for a copy of Receive Me Falling is going on now through May 1 - click here to read the details and get yourself entered!

And now for this week's Finds ...
  1. The Survivor's Club, by Ben Sherwood - A book about what it takes to survive catastrophe and what survivors have in common, recommended by At Home With Books.

  2. Old World Daughter, New World Mother, by Maria Laurino - Combination of Italian family memoir and a look at feminism today, recommended by 5 Minutes for Books.

  3. Twenty Chickens for a Saddle, by Robyn Scott - Here's an excerpt from the review at Book Browse: "How refreshing to read a memoir of a magical childhood where parents are loved and respected. Robyn Scott proves you do not have to come from a dysfunctional family to tell a great story. And this book is all about stories. Twenty-eight chapters of stories of three generations and the lives they have chosen to live in one of Africa's most beautiful countries." I've really enjoyed other African childhood memoirs (for example, Don't Lets Go To The Dogs Tonight) and this ones looks quite lovely.

  4. A Pearl in the Storm, by Tori Murden McClure - Another one found through Book Browse's review: "The book's first line reads, "Let's face it: normal, well-adjusted women don't row alone across oceans." This memoir held no surprise as to the final outcome of the quest, as the cover indicates the author was the first woman to row alone across an ocean. (This was the second indicator that this was to be a delicious read.)" This looks great, don't you think?

  5. Kindred, by Octavia Butler - Several of her other books are already on my list but an amazing review from meant I had to add this one as well. "The immediate effect of reading KINDRED is to make every other time travel book in the world look as if it’s wimping out." How can you top that?!

  6. Memory, by Phillipe Grimbert - This novella deals with a person's ability to create their own truth when facts are sparse. Diary of an Eccentric explains it very well.

  7. The Uncommon Woman: Making an Ordinary Life Extraordinary, by Susie Larson - I don't usually read self-help/self-improvement books, nor do I usually read specifically Christian books but this one really resonated with me for some reason. Check out the review at 5 Minutes for Books and see if it does the same for you.
That's all I have for this week. FYI, more fun Friday Finds can fortuitously be found at the fabulous MizB's blog. Fantastic, no? (Not sure what happened there ... F's sort of took over for a minute. So sorry.)

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Author Guest Post: Erika Robuck

Yesterday I reviewed Receive Me Falling, the first novel by Erika Robuck (my review is here). Today Erika joins us to talk about how her story came to be AND to give away one copy of the book to a lucky reader. Thanks for being here Erika!

Erika at the CityLit Festival, April 2009

A Writer's Perspective: Writing Receive Me Falling
By Erika Robuck

The idea for the novel started with a vacation—or, rather, planning a vacation. My husband and I were looking to get away for our anniversary, and a friend recommended the Caribbean island of Nevis. I had never heard of Nevis, so I started researching information about it. I discovered that the tiny island was once known as the “Queen of the Caribees” for its prolific sugar cane production, and that thousands of slaves passed through its port town of Charlestown. In my Internet research, I also came across a picture from one of the Plantation Inns on Nevis that had an island man in historic dress pulling two white people in an open carriage. They were all smiling. I found the picture to be in poor taste.

This started my mind turning. How was plantation life for the slaves and slave owners in the nineteenth century and earlier? What was the lifestyle? Were there any indigenous people in the Caribbean before European explorers and slaves entered the scene? What is the sugar industry like today? How are tourists viewed by islanders? In my search to answer these questions, I began to think of a story of a reluctant plantation owner’s daughter, abolitionists, and the complexity of familial relationships under the slave system.

Receive Me Falling started as “plain” historical fiction. After the research, my first draft took roughly six months to write. My husband read it and felt that something was missing. He said that it felt like the skeleton of a story, and that many readers didn’t like historical fiction, so I needed something else to draw them in.

That’s when Meghan Owen—the present day protagonist—was born. I used her as a vehicle to take the reader on a journey. As she discovered things, the reader discovered things, and weaving the narrative of the past through the present-day telling filled in the gaps that Meghan couldn’t have found in her own research.

It was important to me to have parallels, without being too obvious, between the past and the present. I wanted to show the importance of history to the present, and the connections forged with the pasts of our ancestors that we are—in part—responsible for righting. Also, there are many books written about slavery, but very few written about slavery in the Caribbean, which is where many slaves passed on their journeys.

Mostly, I wanted to inform readers about a little-known place in history and entertain them while doing it. I love to read historical fiction and I love to write historical fiction. This novel is the first of many, and I hope to continue to illuminate more of those little-known places and times, while telling stories that keep readers engaged.

* * * Contest * * *

Find a question that speaks to you and answer it. The most intriguing response will get a free copy of the novel. The winner will be announced on May 1.

*Do you think it is the responsibility of those in the present to right the wrongs of the past?

*Do you agree that states should formally apologize for slavery?

*Name some of the ways your family history has shaped who you are, for better or worse.

Due to shipping costs and customs fees, this contest is only for US and Canadian addresses ... sorry I can't include everyone this time. - Heather

Those are some very intriguing questions posed by Erika. I look forward to reading all your responses!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Receive Me Falling

Receive Me Falling
By Erika Robuck
266 pages

– And now, ye pow’rs! to whom the brave are dear,
Receive me falling, and your suppliant hear.

from "The Dying Negro, A Poem"
by Thomas Day & John Bicknell

*** The Plot ***

Meg’s life couldn’t be better. She has a great job, wonderful (and wealthy) parents, and will soon marry her soul mate. Then tragedy strikes. After her parents are killed in a traffic accident and things turn sour at work, she calls off her wedding and head to the Caribbean island of Nevis where she’s just learned her family owns land. Once there, she falls in love with the plantation property only to find that her father’s entire estate was built on stolen money. She is being sued by multiple parties and will have to sell the land to settle her father's debts.

Meg’s turmoil is heightened by the strange connection she feels to Eden, the plantation house, and by the ghostly music of a piano playing in the middle of the night. Then she finds a diary …

In a parallel story set in the past, Catherine is the mistress of Eden Plantation, owner of 202 slaves and a valuable tract of land. As she struggles to keep Eden afloat in her father’s declining years, abolitionists and small farmer uprisings threaten to overthrow everything she holds dear.

*** The Pros ***

This story really drew me in. So much happens in the first few pages of the book and I was captivated. I haven’t had much time to read lately but I devoured this book in just a few days (mostly by staying up too late at night). The stories of Meg and Catherine are told in alternating chapters and it seemed that whichever story I was reading at the time was the one I didn’t want to end. Then the point of view would switch to the other character and I’d be caught up in HER story right away.

Although I enjoy historical fiction, I haven’t read much about the Caribbean and I’ve read nothing about Nevis. Most of the historical details were completely new to me. Particularly well done was the author’s presentation of the dissipation and drunkenness of many plantation owners; distanced from England, they were lax in keeping up appearances and adapted societal mores to fit their preferences, and all this came across very clearly.

Personally I’m a fan of plot-driven stories rather than character-driven stories and Receive Me Falling is definitely one of the former. Some characters are explored more than others, but the driving force of the novel is the discovery of Eden’s past. The pacing is excellent – no slow spots here. On the whole, I quite enjoyed this book.

*** The Cons ***

My few complaints are mostly to do with word choice and could likely have been avoided through the use of a better editor. In my opinion, some words are repeated too often within the same paragraph so that the story feels “clunky” at times. This was a bit distracting but not enough to make me stop reading.

At other times the story seems to jump around a bit. There is one scene in particular where first Catherine feels one way, then she feels the exact opposite, then another change, and so on. Because the story is plot-driven, the reader must infer from the surrounding story why Catherine’s feelings change so drastically. Unfortunately for me, I was looking for explanation from Catherine herself and that didn’t come.

So the book does have some flaws, but they were not enough to turn me off from my pleasure in reading it.

*** About the Author ***

I met Erika at a local Writers meeting before she published her book and I’ve been following her progress ever since. Needless to say, I was THRILLED to finally read her finished story. She is a wonderful gal and I wish her much success.

Erika is exciting about connecting with book clubs and is willing to call in (or visit, if you’re local) to discuss her book. Check out her website and her blog and be sure to let her know you heard about her here.

*** Coming Soon ***

Come back tomorrow to hear from Erika about how she came to write this book AND for a chance to win a copy for yourself!

(Or, for the impatient among us, you can buy your own copy right now by clicking here.)

Preparing For My Book Club Panel - input from you?

This is the first year that the Baltimore Book Festival will have a panel discussion focused solely on book clubs and I'm the one putting it together - yeah! The Festival is still months away (Sept. 25-27) but I've already begun preparing and I wanted to share my progress with all of you, and ask for your help.

My goal is to have a panel of 4-6 book club leaders who will discuss how to start, grow, and improve a book club. Included in that discussion will be how to choose the right book for your club, handling problems in the club, and lots more. Sounds like fun, right?

So far I have three women who have committed to join the panel and all three run very different clubs.
  • One club is made up of only only African American women - they read a wide variety of books.
  • Another club is comprised of various races and economic backgrounds - they read only African American books.
  • And the third club leader participates in 4 clubs - a "regular" book club, two clubs she runs at a retirement center, and a Spanish language club for (I think) native English speakers.
There is another woman who may not be able to be on the panel but who will definitely help in my planning. She is a trainer of library book club coordinators - what a great job, right?!

I'd say there is some variety on that panel, wouldn't you? I'm really looking forward to working with these women - and with other club leaders - to create a fun and informative panel discussion.

I would love some input from my readers! If you were attending a panel about book clubs, what topics would you like to see addressed? What websites do you rely on for help with your book club? Are there any tips you want to share? I want this panel to be as helpful as possible so please share your ideas. Thanks!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

New Post at RGG

My latest post is up at This time I talk about the Junot Diaz reading I attended with my book club this weekend (and boy, was it ever interesting!) and also our thoughts on Oscar Wao. If you have a minute, hop on over and check it out.

Monday, April 20, 2009

A Monday Update

I have lots of things to share today but lack the time to put together a coherent post. Hence, I'm resorting to the tried-and-true "bulleted list" method and hoping it will do ...
  • Saturday was a gorgeous day in Maryland and a perfect day for the CityLit Festival. I heard some interesting panels, browsed lots of author tables, and - with part of my book club - got to hear Junot Diaz discuss his novel, THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO (my review is here). I have video clips of Diaz to post but that won't happen until later this week.

  • I did recap the event briefly on my book club's blog though.

  • My new laptop is completely ready and waiting to be picked up from my friend's house (he was kind enough to transfer everything from my old one to the new one). However, his wife went into labor and delivered their baby on the very day I was supposed to pick up the computer. Dang it! Needless to say, it will be a few more days before I have my laptop in hand. (Yes, I'm thrilled about the new baby ... but I MISS MY LAPTOP!)

  • I'm completely bored with the audio book of THE SECRET OF LOST THINGS. I would have given up halfway through but I don't know anyone IRL who could tell me what happens in the end and I hate asking bloggers to do that because it takes so long to write out a summary via email. Luckily there are just 2 cassettes left.

  • I'm planning a vlog post (video blog, for those unfamiliar with that term) once I get my laptop. I'm so excited that it has a webcam! I've never used one though - I usually use my digital camera to post videos - so I'm a bit nervous ... is it hard to learn?

  • By tonight I should be finished reading RECEIVE ME FALLING, the first novel by local author Erika Robuck. I saw Erika at CityLit this weekend too. I'm enjoying the story but it does have some flaws. Still, it is very interesting and I don't want to put it down. Look for a review later this week.

  • The dinner theater production of "My Way: A Tribute to Frank Sinatra" (the one I told you about on Friday) was great! Hubby and I sang along to almost all the songs. The only drawback was the people talking around us throughout the show. Ugh.

  • Next month my book club is reading QUEEN OF THE ROAD, and author Doreen Orion is calling in to discuss it with us. Unfortunately I can't make it to that meeting because it is Kiddo's AWANA Awards Night ... which is obviously more important.

  • I started Weight Watchers at the beginning of this month. Although it may not seem like a big deal to some, I'm about 20 pounds over the "suggested" weight for my height and I keep gaining. I got sick of having to buy new, larger clothes every season and finally decided to do something about it. So far, so good - I lost 5 pounds my first week and haven't had much difficulty sticking to the food plan. Yea!

  • Kiddo's reading is improving!!! I am excited beyond words about this.
Those are the things that are on my mind at the moment. Hopefully I'll have some coherent posts for you as the week progresses but I'm not making any promises ... not until I have my laptop back at least!

Friday, April 17, 2009

Friday Finds 04/17/09

Welcome to this week's Friday Finds!

Before I tell you about the books that jumped onto my TBR list this week I have to talk (quickly) about the Indies Choice Award Winners. Here's a list of the books that won this year. Best picture book went to Bats in the Library, by Brian Lies. This is an EXCELLENT book! I read it to Kiddo a while back and we both really enjoyed it. It helped that Kiddo and I both love bats, but regardless, the book is adorable.

I'd venture to say that most kids would enjoy it, but maybe boys a bit more than girls. There is also Bats at the Beach - you'll love what they toast over their fire instead of marshmallows. The stories are fun and the illustrations are quite lovely. So I highly recommend checking out Bats in the Library and the other Bats books.

And now back to Friday Finds ...
  1. The Traitor's Wife, by Susan Higginbothan - This is the story of Lady Eleanor de Clare, wife of the man who would betray King Edward II of England. Two reviewers I trust - S. Krishna and Medieval Bookworm - both had good things to say about this book.

  2. First Comes Love Then Comes Malaria, by Eve Brown-Waite - This is a combination travelogue and memoir about Eve's experiences in the Peace Corps. The description sort of reminds me of another book I enjoyed, Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures. S.Krishna is to blame for this addition to my list as well. (If I gave Bad Blogger points like Chris does, S.Krishna would be in trouble this week!)

  3. The Horse Boy, by Rupert Isaacson - This true story of a father's unusual efforts to help his autistic son adjust to "the real world" is not something I'd usually be interested in. However Chris (the same one I mentioned in #2) wrote a glowing review that really caught my attention. His review includes a very touching book trailer, so go check it out.
Nothing new for Kiddo this week, but I can report that his reading is improving bit by bit. The tutor is definitely helping! His confidence is growing and he will not try to read things (signs, book titles, notes, etc.) without being asked - and without stressing over it. Yeah!

For more Friday Finds visit MizB's Blog - there are always lots of titles to explore over there.

Tonight I'm off to the dinner theater with about 20 family members. We'll be seeing MY WAY: A MUSICAL TRIBUTE TO FRANK SINATRA. I'm expecting good things! Then tomorrow I'll be at the Baltimore CityLit Fest where I'll get to hear author Junot Diaz (of Oscar Wao fame) and discuss his book with my book club. I hope you all have a wonderful weekend as well!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
by Junot Diaz
340 pages

*** The Hype ***

It seems like this book is everywhere right now. In 2008 it won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, bloggers are talking about it, some gals in my book club were excited about it, and the author is appearing at a local event this weekend. There is a lot of hype associated with this book and because of that, I was expecting to LOVE it. In actuality, I can't quite make up my mind about it ...

*** The Story ***

This is the life story of Oscar de Leon (aka Oscar Wao). He's an overweight sci-fi nerd growing up in the '80s and '90s in New Jersey. His family is originally from the Dominican Republic (DR) and of course, you can't understand his story without understanding where his family. Hence, the book includes the story of his mother and her parents. Oscar's mom and grandparents lived in the DR during the time of Trujillo, the brutal dictator, a fact that impacted their lives in various ways. And .... I don't want to say more than that.

*** Some Quirks ***
  • References to Fantasy Literature - This is something I greatly enjoyed about the book. Oscar is a huge sci-fi/fantasy fan and his passion invades parts of the book. When the narrator refers to some secret police goons as "Nazgul" ... that is classic! (Of course, those of you who aren't Tolkien fans won't get why that is funny - sorry.) And references like this are found every few pages - it's great!

  • Footnotes - This is another thing I loved about this book - the abundance and length of the footnotes. Whenever the narrator mentioned someone the reader might not be familiar with, the footnote would give the history of that person. In most cases the info was about actual people and events related to Trujillo's dictatorial regime, which many readers are unfamiliar with. I found them fascinating and highly enjoyable. And although there are a lot of footnotes near the beginning of the book, they do get sparser as the story progresses.
  • Use of Spanish - This is one of those aspects of the novel that I'm not completely comfortable with. There are Spanish words and phrases thrown in on every page. My three years of high school Spanish were enough to get me the basics but there was a lot I did not understand. I assume that I got the gist of the story from the context, but I'm not sure. See, if I didn't know basic Spanish I wouldn't understand that Oscar's mother called him and his sister ugly all the time, and that is very important to understanding their relationship. So what did I miss by not understanding the other Spanish phrases? It could be something vital ... or not. I do realize that many bilingual people talk just like Diaz writes - I experienced it firsthand in the home of a high school friend. It is consistent with the characters ... but not necessarily easy to understand.
*** Questionable Language ***

I've mentioned before that I choose not to use bad language. However, that being said, I'm not a prude. I don't let other people's language bother me (provided Kiddo isn't within earshot) and I don't mind bad language in books, as long as it seems relevant. On the other hand, gratuitous bad language DOES bother me. You know what I mean here - those people who can't seem to complete a sentence without a few cuss words thrown in. That drives me nuts. And this book is borderline gratuitous (in both English and Spanish).

My problem is that I can't decide if the language should be there or if it should not. You see, it IS completely consistent with their characters ... but it is still offensive to me. Would the book be the same without it? I don't know, but I doubt it. All I do know is that there was a bit too much of it for my comfort level.

*** But Did I Like It? ***

That's a good question. On the one hand, I really enjoyed getting to know the characters. Being a sci-fi/fantasy nut myself, I really enjoyed the myriad references thrown in. On the other hand, the language bugged me.

Perhaps more telling is my reaction at the end of the book. "What? That's all that happened? That's it?" I couldn't figure out why this book was so great.

However ...

*** The Meaning of the Title ***

When I found out the meaning of the title, things made a bit more sense. According to Wikipedia, the "title is a nod to Hemingway's short story, 'The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber." You can click here for a summary of that story. After reading that summary, the ending of the book makes A LOT more sense.

*** In the End ***

I can't say that this book was amazing but it was certainly good. It kept my attention, the writing style was unique (in a good way), and the plot and characters all made sense. Learning the meaning of the title helped me understand the ending better, but I'm still not sure I know "the point" of the book. Does there have to be one? No, not really. But would it make me like it better? Yes, certainly.

*** Your Thoughts? ***

For those who have read this, did you have any of the same reactions I did? Maybe you loved it? What do you think "the point" is or is there not one? If you've reviewed it, I'm happy to add a link to your review here.

For those who haven't read this yet, are you interested? What have you heard about it from other people? Is is on or off your TBR list?

I'm attending a talk by the author soon so I'll update once it is over.

UPDATE: Click here for my book club's brief recap of this book and the author talk, click here for my more detailed post at, and on April 28th I'll be posting videos from Diaz's talk so come back for that please!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Lovely Links #14

I've been finding all sorts of fun and interesting things online recently so that means it is time for another Lovely Links. Hope you enjoy them!

Fun Stuff
  • Spontaneous dancing at a train station in Belgium - this is GREAT!
  • Ever wondered about the difference between Pixar and Dreamworks studios? This hilarious cartoon will end your confusion forever.
  • If you are on Twitter you can follow Darth Vader's tweets! And R2D2's, and lots of other sci-fi characters. (Hmm, maybe I should be tweeting too? Yeah, I think not. Too addicting.)
  • Have you had your allotment of cuteness for the day? These baby Asian small-clawed otters will definitely help with that - they are too cute to pass up!
  • If you've read Twilight you have to go check out this short comic - you will totally identify!

  • Ever wondered where the sign "Rx" came from? Wonder no longer.
  • Schindler's actual list (one of them anyway) is found.
  • Remember Billy Joel's song "We Didn't Start the Fire"? Did you catch all the historical references in there? Go check out this amazing video that includes images for EVERY SINGLE REFERENCE in the song - and you'll be singing along for the rest of the day too.
  • Are you a fan of the TV show "The Tudors"? Check in at S.Krisha's blog every Monday for a recap of the most recent episode and chime in with your comments.
  • Those ancient Chinese terracotta statues may not be warriors ... but servants.
  • Are audio books considered "cheating" or do they count as reading? This post examines that idea.

  • An update on the child actors from the film "Slumdog Millionaire" can be found here. Thanks to Amy for pointing this out.
  • Talk about a UNIQUE way to celebrate Passover! Author Laurie R. King attended a Seder meal at which there was lots of singing ... "Matzo, Matzo, Man" was only one of the many song adaptations. This post is VERY funny - I've been sharing it with everyone.
  • Never judge a book by the cover, or a person by their appearance ... and this clip bears that out:

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Baker Street & Joyful Reading Recap

I joined The Baker Street Challenge specifically so I would have an excuse to read all the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes books. That quickly morphed into My Month of Joyful Reading.

I signed up at the Seven Percent Solution level in The Baker Street Challenge, so I had to read seven books - that's exactly how many Mary Russell books I hadn't yet read.

I highly recommend these books. If you are a fan of Holmes, you will enjoy them. If you like period mysteries, you will enjoy them. If you like historical fiction, you will LOVE them - King is adept at immersing the reader the time period she's chosen.

Here are the links to all my reviews, along with the main theme, topic or setting of each:
  1. Monstrous Regiment of Women - women's movement after World War I
  2. Letter of Mary - archeology and women
  3. The Moor- fraud and The Hound of the Baskervilles
  4. Oh, Jerusalem!- colonial control of Palestine
  5. Justice Hall - World War I battlefront issues and English inheritance law
  6. The Game - colonialism and espionage in India
  7. Locked Rooms - the jazz age in San Fransisco
One thing I love about these books is that they each follow immediately upon the heels of the previous adventure with little time lost between books. Sometimes the characters overlap from book to book as well. And perhaps most importantly, King creates a Holmes who is eminently believable. Think of the BBC TV version of Sherlock Holmes, think of the great detective on his most daring case, and you will have the Holmes as written by King. Kudos to her for such an achievement.

In April, the latest book in the series, The Language of Bees, will be published. And in May Laurie R. King is coming to a library in Baltimore where I'll get to meet her - yeah! I was honored to host her twice on my blog recently (with a guest post and an interview) so I'm really looking forward to meeting her in person.

A big THANK YOU to Bookish Ruth for putting together The Baker Street Challenge. This challenge goes through the end of the year so if you'd like to join there is still plenty of time!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Locked Rooms

Locked Rooms
by Laurie R. King
402 pages

This is the 8th book in the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series. In this episode the couple travels to San Fransisco where they attempt to unravel the secrets of Mary's tragic childhood while navigating a city in the throes of the jazz age.

For me, this book wasn't as good as the others in the series. I know that many bloggers say it is their favorite but I just don't see it. I felt like the middle dragged and the plot was somewhat predictable. However I really did enjoy the final third of the book, so that's a good thing.

After giving it more thought, I'm sure the reason I didn't care for this particular MR/SH episode is that the focus is too much on Russell. Not that I don't like her - I do! - but the other books are more about intriguing cases and the relationship between Russell and Holmes.

Have any of you read this one? Do you agree or disagree with me? Which is your favorite in the series?

Sunday, April 12, 2009

New Opportunites from Laurie R. King

Remember how I had author Laurie R. King on my blog twice last month? And how I was so excited about her upcoming book, THE LANGUAGE OF BEES? Well I've got her here again, this time with a great message for all you readers out there:
Dear friends,

With a new book coming out and an ongoing celebration ("Fifteen Weeks of Bees"--link below) in the Laurie R. King e-universe, I wanted to include ways to help Independent booksellers, libraries, and people to whom hardback novels are but a distant dream. Here's what I've come up with:

Indies--A piece of art:
Readers who buy a copy of The Language of Bees from an independent bookseller and send us their receipt will be entered into a drawing for a truly gorgeous piece of art: an original, limited edition letterpress broadside (value $125) of "A Venomous Death," a new, illustrated Laurie King short story featuring Mary Russell, Sherlock Holmes, and... bees. Details are at the link below.

Libraries--A set of Russells:
During National Library Week, we're collecting library love letters from their patrons. The winning letter gets a copy of the new book, The Language of Bees. At the same time, their library wins a complete set of hardback Russell and Holmes novels, beginning with The Beekeeper's Apprentice. We will also do a drawing this week from the "Laurie Loves Libraries" list on the LRK web site, and send that library a copy of the new book.

Fundraiser--Name a character, hear from Holmes:
Both to help the world and to honor bees (two books with bees in the title, after all,) we've set up a fundraising page at Heifer International to send beehives to poor communities worldwide. Those who donate two or more hives will get an exclusive Heifer booklet on beekeeping by Sherlock Holmes--and be entered into a drawing to name a character in the next Russell and Holmes novel.

I would appreciate it if you spread the word, and lend a hand to three great causes.



The links:

I hope that you will take advantage of some of these great opportunities!

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Invisible Children of Uganda

Are you aware of what is going on in Uganda right now? I'll admit that I've heard little about this, hence the reason for this post.

What were you doing Christmas Day 2008? While I was enjoying the day with my family, taking pictures of Kiddo opening gifts, Joseph Kony's army was massacring 600 people, abducting 220 people (including 160 children), and mutilating countless others.

Click here to watch a 30 minute video about the Invisible Children. It IS worth 30 minutes, I assure you. It is also heartbreaking - be sure not to watch this when your kids are around.

There is a chance to get involved, a chance for you to bring world attention to this crisis. Please visit 5 Minutes for Mom for info on the "abduct yourself" campaign set for April 25.

Friday Finds

Last week I was too exhausted to put together my Friday Finds so this week I've got more to share. :)

Here are the books added to my TBR list recently:
  • Tiger Burning Bright, by Theodora DuBois - This novel is set during the 1857 Sepoy Rebellion in India, and it sounds fascinating. I heard about this from Puss Reboots - go check out her review for more info.

  • The Conqueror: A Novel of William the Conqueror, the Bastard Son Who Overpowered a Kingdom and the Woman Who Melted His Heart, by Georgette Heyer- According to S. Krishna, this is definitely NOT one of Heyer's regency romance novels. Rather, it reads more like a textbook. That's ok with me though, as I've always wanted to learn more about William.

  • one of the many books by Steven Pressfield - In this post Lezlie talks about his skill at writing battle scenes. That's something I raved about in a recent review of Bernard Cornwell's books. Most of Pressman's book are set in ancient Greece so I'm VERY intrigued. Here are some of the titles in case you want to check them out: Tides of War, Gates of Fire, The Virtues of War, The Afghan Campaign, The Last of the Amazons.

Here are the books I thought Kiddo might enjoy:
  • The Mystery of the Haunted Lighthouse, by Elspeth Campbell Murphy - Bookish Ruth says: "This book is part of an excellent Christian fiction series for children. Each book has a theme based on Biblical principles. The Mystery of the Haunted Lighthouse's theme is faithfulness. Spooky but not scary, this is an entertaining read." This is book 7 in the series.
  • The Usborne Book of Science Activities - I'm sure we can find fun things to do over summer vacation in this book. She Is Too Fond of Books posted pictures of her daughter doing some of the experiments - what fun!
And I had to add a movie to the list as well:
  • Lawrence of Arabia - Yes, I AM talking about the "old" movie. I've never seen it and this post reminded me of all the wonderful things I've heard about it.

Have you read/seen any of these? What did you think of them?

You can find more Friday Finds over at MizB's.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Lies My Teacher Told Me

Lies My Teacher Told Me
by James Loewen
384 pages

I'm quitting this book after just a few pages. I started reading it at Disney World last year (last April, actually) and just couldn't get into it. At the time I thought it was because of WHERE I was, but now I think that it was more WHAT the book was. I expected a sort of trivia book filled with "DID YOU KNOW?!" type questions. Instead I found a criticism of textbooks and American education in general. Not that the criticism isn't valid, but the book simply wasn't what I was expecting.

I had every intention of picking this up again at some point but softdrink at Fizzy Thoughts says it doesn't get any better. In fact, it was her review that prompted me to give up on this one - she says everything I was thinking so go check it out. Thanks softdrink - you saved me hours of fruitless reading!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

At the Aquarium

I mentioned before that I've been exhausted lately and that I wasn't getting much reading time in. Even my weekends have been chock full of "stuff" to do. But this past weekend, it was GOOD stuff.

Hubby, Kiddo and I spent Saturday at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. It has always been one of my very favorite places, and Kiddo loves it as well. When I was a stay-at-home mom we had season passes and I'd take kiddo at least once a month. His favorite part is the shark tank - sometimes we'd go just to see them (skipping the rest of the aquarium).

Our visit coincided with the Grand Opening of the all new dolphin show, Our Ocean Planet. Kiddo is NOT a fan of dolphins - any guesses why? Well, it's because dolphins sometimes attack sharks. Didn't know that? Kiddo could tell you all about it (or you read lots of answers here).

Kiddo dislikes dolphins so much that we usually skip the dolphin show on our aquarium visit, but we convinced him that we should check out the new show. And I'm glad we did - it was pretty cool!

The intro to the new show gets the audience involved by inviting them to text answers to questions and cast votes for their favorite creatures. Hubby and Kiddo has lots of fun texting their responses.

Throughout the show the trainers showed off the abilities of the dolphins ... including the way they can splash the audience on demand. The only thing missing was our favorite trick - the super high jump.

After the show we wandered through the rest of the Aquarium and checked out all our favorite creatures. My favorites are the rays ... and there are LOTS of different kinds here.

The last part of our tour took us to the shark exhibit, Kiddo's favorite place. We got a great look at the saw-nose shark and all the other snaggle-toothed sharks that Kiddo loves so much.

On the way out of the shark tank you pass through an underwater viewing room where you can see the huge ray tank. Luckily for us, a diver was feeding the rays so we got a few really good looks at their underbellies. Cool!

Here's kiddo and a ray, up close and personal. I told him it looks likes they are kissing each other and he said "MOM, I WASN'T kissing him. I was just LOOKING at him." Oh, sorry.

Here's a ray eating a squid from the diver's hand - how cool!

If you are interested, here's a video of the ray tank from the top. You can also the a zebra shark (my other favorite creature) and a sea turtle.

And here's a video of the rays getting fed. Sorry for the dimness of the video but it was quite dark down there.

I hope you've enjoyed my tour of the Aquarium. We had a wonderful time. If you are ever in the area, I'd say this is a MUST see.
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