Wednesday, December 16, 2009

37. Sorcery & Cecilia, or, The Enchanted Chocolate Pot
by Patricia C. Wrede & Caroline Stevermer

After deciding that I wanted to read one of my suggested books, I chose this title from that list basically at random. I hadn't saved the e-mail from the family friend that suggested it, so I couldn't really remember why she liked it and thought I should give it a try. So I started reading this one without knowing much about it except that it was in the Young Adult section at the library. The book jacket copy was no help -- Colin read it, and said it was the worst book jacket copy he'd ever seen. I wasn't that surprised when it took some time to get invested in the story.

This story is told in a series of letters between two cousins, Cecilia and Kate. The year is 1817 and Kate is making her social debut in London while Cecilia is at home in the English countryside. At first, they describe commonplace occurrences to each other, complaining about their siblings and deciding what dress to wear to which party. However, in their world magic and sorcery are accepted facts of life. The young cousins soon become entangled in a complicated web of competition and deceit amongst a dashing wizard and a ruthless witch and wizard who are attempting to rob him of his powers. Keeping each other apprised of events and advising each other on courses of action through their letters, Cecilia and Kate manage to defeat their enemies -- and become engaged to the men they love.

I was surprised at how invested I eventually became. While I wouldn't really call this book a page-turner, I really did want to know what was going to happen and how all of the events were connected. I grew more comfortable with the letter format as I read, but it's not something I prefer. I am the type of person that sets a book down once I've ended a chapter -- and there were no chapters in this book! I kept setting it down after one letter ended and having to back up a few pages to remind myself of what was going on before starting the next letter. I also had some trouble keeping track of the many secondary characters, although it was easier by the last third of the book.

I appreciated the Authors' Note at the end of the book, although I almost wish that I had read it first. Wrede and Stevermer didn't set out to write a book together, this project started as a writing exercise -- a game, really. They took turns writing letters in character to each other, never discussing plot points in person. Once their game was over, they went back and read through the story. They edited and made some changes, but the book is entirely representative of their game. This made complete sense to me. I think it explains why the beginning is a little slow, and hard to get into. The two authors seem to be very compatible; the overall tone of the book was really very cohesive. It would have been easy for two characters who know each other intimately to fall into the short-hand of their friendship and leave out details, but for the most part Wrede and Stevermer did a good job of including exposition naturally.

I would recommend this book, although I recommend reading the Authors' Note first! Also, it really is appropriately YA. If there's a young girl in your life who enjoys fantasy novels, I think she should give this one a try. (Boys will probably want to skip it -- there's a lot of girly stuff about dresses and courting and stuff.)

36. Animal Husbandry by Laura Zigman

I really like the movie Someone Like You, which is based on this book. Ashley Judd is gorgeous and charming, and her wardrobe is fantastic. Hugh Jackman is very appealing. And Marisa Tomei has never played a better sassy best friend. So I was a little apprehensive about reading the source material -- would I like it as much as the movie? What if I liked it better than the movie and didn't watch to watch it again? I actually put off reading it for a few days after I got it from the library! Shrug -- it was a little silly, but whatever.

Animal Husbandry  is about Jane, a TV talent scout who falls madly in love with and is then unceremoniously dumped by a new co-worker. After the break-up, Jane moves in with Eddie, another co-worker and post-love survivor. She is desperate to understand the why -- why did he leave, why didn't he love her as much as she loved him? Why? In order to cope, Jane throws herself in to a new theory about men and their inability to commit. She finds research to support her hypothesis that men have the same instincts as male animals -- they have the same "copulatory imperative" as well as the urge to move on to better pastures after mating, so to speak. After obsessing about her theory and lost love, she eventually recovers from the break-up and moves on with her life.

I didn't dislike the book, but I appreciate the story more in movie format for a few reasons:

In the book, there was too much foreshadowing at the beginning. The "if you'd asked me then" and "if I'd known then what I do now" portion dragged on a bit. A simple and brief voiceover at the beginning of the movie was more effective.

There is actually a lot of scientific information in this story. If you know me, then you know that this isn't really a selling point for me. Each chapter of the book began with an excerpt from a book or magazine with scientific facts about that stage in Jane's theory. To be honest, I think I only read one. So boring! I thought the use of the scientific facts that Jane uses to support the theory were used more effectively in the movie -- mainly shared in Jane's conversations. It was almost as if the theory was a character in the book, and it was a bit more secondary in the movie.

In the book, Jane commiserates with a gay male friend who is just as perplexed as she by male behavior. This character was cut from the movie and replaced with a sister and brother-in-law who are trying to have a baby. I liked this change a lot. Jane's friend in the book didn't really add very much to the story (I don't even remember his name). I really liked how in the movie, Jane is completely caught up in her "men are animals" theory, and she realizes toward the end that she hasn't given proper credit to her brother-in-law, who is good man and a very caring husband.

I felt that the movie explained Jane's obsession with the theory better. Eddie is appalled by her research, and demands to know why Jane can't just let her ex go. She replies that if the theory isn't true, then men don't leave all women -- they just leave her. It's a fairly powerful moment, which I think the book was lacking.

The main difference between the book and the movie lies in Jane's relationship with Eddie. In Animal Husbandry, Eddie and Jane are roommates and friends, somewhat united in the battle to recover from their break-ups. At the end of the book, they have managed to heal somewhat and move on with their lives. In Someone Like You, Eddie and Jane are roommates and friends, somewhat united in the battle to recover from their break-ups. And at the end of the movie, they fall in love. I admit, I prefer the romance of the movie to the reality of the book.

In the end, I think the story is better told in the movie format. Or maybe I just prefer that version of the story, I'm still not sure. I am relieved that I will still want to watch Someone Like You occasionally, I really do like it a lot. Colin watched it with me after I was done reading the book, and he claims that he liked it. I'm waiting to read his review, though. He's a little behind on posting movie reviews on his blog, so I'm not sure how long until that will be.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

35. The Likeness by Tana French

Remember when I read In the Woods? And it was awesome? Imagine my excitement when Colin told me there was a sequel. Yay! I thought Colin would be eager to read it too, but he felt so burned by the ending of In the Woods that he literally scoffed at me when I brought it up. (So touchy.) I read this book over a Saturday night and Sunday while he was at work, so as not to bother him. I was a little stupid to start reading a mystery while I was home alone on a dark and stormy night (as I am a big scaredy cat) but it was so good that I couldn't put it down.

The Likeness isn't a straight-up sequel. Rob's partner Cassie is the narrator of her own story, which takes place about six months after the events of In the Woods. Cassie's past work as an undercover officer comes back to haunt her when the body of an identical woman is discovered in a remote area in a small town. Cassie's boyfriend, Sam, and her former undercover boss, Frank Mackey, call her to the crime scene. After learning that the woman, who was in no way related to Cassie, was using the fake identity created for Cassie's undercover work years before, Frank decides that they should pretend the woman was only injured instead of killed and that Cassie should infiltrate the dead woman's life to figure out who killed her and why she was using Cassie's fake name. After a week's preparation, Cassie assumes the identity of "Lexie" and movies in with her four roommates. After almost a month of undercover work, "Operation Mirror" comes to a shocking close.

This book was great! A total page turner. I could not put it down. French somehow found a way to make her crazy premise work -- by the end, you don't even remember being doubtful about it. Not only was the mystery engrossing, but the characters were well-developed and totally drew you in. For anyone like Colin who didn't get enough closure at the end of In the Woods, I recommend that you give this one a try. French gives you more answers and closure this time, and the payoff at the end is satisfying and credible.

I felt a personal connection to Cassie. She is the only child of a French mother and an Irish father, and the combination of those heritages gave her a unique appearance. Living in Ireland, she never met anyone who truly resembled her. That makes the discovery of "Lexie" so intriguing -- who is this woman and how is it possible that she look so much like Cassie? My experience is a bit different, but with similar results. I look a lot like my mom, but the shape of my eyes and my tiny nose (there's almost no bridge to it) give me a slightly Asian appearance. More times than I can count, people have mistaken me for Asian or part Asian. We went to a party given by family friends when I was seven years old, and someone remarked what kind people my parents were to adopt a Korean orphan after having two children of their own. (Indeed.) I felt as though I could relate to Cassie and possibly have similar reactions in the circumstances.

If you're in the market for a good mystery, or just a good read, pick up The Likeness. Oh, and I read online that French is writing a third book in this series, with Frank Mackey as the narrator. I'll be first in line.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

34. Bobby and Jackie by C. David Heymann

I love Jackie Kennedy. I really do. It's mainly her iconic sense of style, but I also admire the fact that above all else she was a survivor. I have a few biographies written about her, including one called A Woman Named Jackie by C. David Heymann, who also wrote Bobby and Jackie. [Side note: I keep trying to type Jackie and Bobby, which shows my clear bias.] When I read a review of this book in People, I clipped it and saved it until I was ready for another biography.

If the Kennedys -- and Jackie in particular -- interest you at all, you should definitely read this book. It's a fairly quick read, only covering in depth the time period of the alleged affair (1964-1968). Heymann quotes numerous members of the Kennedys' inner circle, many of whom he states are only now willing to go on the record about the "open secret" of Jackie and Bobby's affair. According to those interviewed, so many people were in on the secret that it's amazing the story didn't break at the time. Jackie and Bobby are portrayed as close friends whose bond deepened after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, eventually leading to a long-term affair and the realization that they were each the love of the other's life. The affair came to an amicable end while Bobby was running for president. It's an interesting read, although you have to decide for yourself how much of the story that you believe. Although Heymann is careful to provide sources, there is no concrete proof or evidence of the relationship.

I didn't really plan to read this book directly after In the President's Secret Service, but I'm glad that I did. It was interesting to read about the circumstances of the JFK and RFK assassinations with a stronger grasp on Secret Service protocol. For example, Bobby was entitled to Secret Service protection while running for president, but opted not to use it. Instead, he hired two bodyguards -- neither of whom he allowed to carry guns. Both of the brothers -- especially Bobby -- felt that if someone wanted to get to them, they would find a way. And neither wanted to be separated from the public that they were trying to connect with.

I have to mention that this is the first book that I've read using Kindle for PC. It's awesome! You can install Kindle software on your computer for free and buy Kindle books (usually $9.99 each) to read onscreen. Many thanks to Annie & Doug for the idea!

Monday, December 7, 2009

33. In the President's Secret Service by Ronald Kessler

Colin loves watching The Daily Show. I like it too, but it's not must-see TV for me. I'm usually around while he's watching it, and pay attention when something is especially funny or interesting. A few months ago on the show, Jon Stewart interviewed Ronald Kessler about this book. It sounded really interesting, so I made a note of the title and placed a request at the library. It came in last week, and I was excited to start reading (in part because it was a welcome change of subject from honor killings). I was expecting a serious and objective history of the Secret Service.

That wasn't what I got. As it turns out, an objective history was not Kessler's goal in writing this book. He does provide information on how the Secret Service was founded and how it became the agency it is today, including an official timeline of events. He also spends time explaining procedures and training. However, the bulk of the book is comprised of personal anecdotes about the presidents who have been protected by the Secret Service and criticism of its current management.

The personal anecdotes read a bit like good gossip, which I am not opposed to. Although I really wasn't expecting to read dish about our nation's leaders, I'm definitely not above enjoying it. In part because I agree with the idea that how one treats people behind closed doors is indicative of their overall character. Politicians work very hard to maintain a public persona that will instill confidence and get them votes, and it's always interesting to learn how that persona compares the person behind it. For example, Jimmy Carter made a show of arriving to work at the Oval Office by 6:00 a.m. and carrying his own baggage onto Air Force One, so that Americans would respect his hard work and common man attitude. In reality -- according the agents interviewed for the book -- Carter would nap for a couple of hours after arriving at the Oval Office and the bags he carried onto the plane were empty, his agents being left to carry his actual bags. I also enjoyed learning Secret Service code names, such as Renegade (Barack Obama) and Renaissance (Michelle Obama).

In shining a light on the problems within the agency, Kessler states that he hopes to be a catalyst for change and reform. It's obvious throughout that he has utmost respect for individual agents and the work that they do. However, according to Kessler, in the last decade managerial problems have compromised our presidents' safety. The Secret Service became part of the Department of Homeland Security in 2003, which created more competition for funding. While increased competition for funding is a serious concern, the real problem is that Secret Service management is not aggressively pursuing the funding necessary to properly provide protection. Management expects agents to step up and compensate for lack of funding with unimaginable hours and an ever-increasing workload. The attitude is that agents should be able to handle whatever is thrown at them, to the point that retaining agents is difficult -- especially since the private security sector is booming, offering more money for fewer hours. And a higher turnover rate should mean additional money and time spent on training new agents, but often training falls by the wayside due to the workload.

Kessler also clearly has little respect for protectees who attempt to limit their Secret Service protection. He shares stories about the Bush twins attempting to lose their agents, and states that they would probably regret doing so should they be kidnapped by terrorists and end up on Al-Jazeera. He also provides numerous stories of campaigns and administrations objecting to metal detectors at public events, especially in recent years. The instances when Secret Service acquiesced to such demands seem to baffle Kessler, who strongly feels that this is a dangerous compromise to the protectee's safety. He blames the current agency management for allowing such security breaches and attempts to make a case for the dismissal of the current agency director in favor of an outside hire, reasoning that an objective outsider could begin the necessary reforms.

As I said, In the President's Secret Service was not what I expected. I enjoyed reading it, but I think the information and stories within are best taken with a grain of salt. Not only does Kessler have a clear agenda and attempt to persuade his readers, but many of his sources elected to remain anonymous. While this doesn't mean that their stories aren't true, I think it's worth remembering while reading and coming to your own conclusions.

I want to include a link to an interesting Q&A with Kessler about the recent breach of security at the White House State Dinner (you know, the social climbing party crashers?). Also you can go here to watch the interview from The Daily Show.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

32. Murder in the Name of Honor: The True Story of One Woman's Heroic Fight Against an Unbelievable Crime
by Rana Husseini

I saw this book on the new non-fiction shelf at the library and was intrigued. I know a little bit about honor killings -- I've heard of the practice happening in the Middle East and in immigrant communities here and in England (and once saw a Law & Order: SVU episode featuring the topic). I was interested to know more, mainly because I don't understand the concept of honor as a motivation to kill someone. In my experience, losing face or not having honor doesn't have the same significance that it does in other cultures. There are a lot of conservative people in our society, as well as an endless amount of people willing to judge you, but the things that might cause someone to lose honor are becoming more and more commonplace and accepted. Even when you hear about someone who has been disowned by their family, the word "honor" isn't really used in talking about it. So I checked out the book in the hope of gaining some insight.

Husseini starts her book with an account of the first honor killing that she reported on in 1994. She swiftly adopted the cause, investigating and reporting on as many honor crimes as possible. In this, her goal was to humanize the victim and break the taboo surrounding the practice. She expanded her efforts into campaigning against the laws in Jordan that allowed for lenient sentences of the perpetrators. The second half of the book explores the nature and frequency of honor crimes throughout the world -- from other Middle Eastern countries (Iraq, Iran), to European countries (Sweden, Holland) to both South and North America. Husseini's writing is accessible for the most part, although she tends to get mired down in statistics. She offers suggestions for prevention and dealing with the matter throughout, which I appreciated but would rather have read about in one cohesive chapter. The history of honor killings is not extensive, although I'm not sure how much documentation exists past the last twenty or thirty years. All in all, it's a fairly well-written introduction to the topic.

I was incredulous at the defense of this tradition documented in the book. Many honor killings happen in broad daylight, within sight and earshot of bystanders. People who are aware of what's happening don't try to stop it and speak of it casually after the fact. Many people feel that there was nothing else a family could do after losing their honor; they had to restore it and an honor killing was the only way. Husseini was told by one man that the the male perpetrators of honor killings were the ones who suffered the consequences, rather than the female victims -- clearly demonstrating the value he placed on a woman's life. While most people involved in honor killings feel no remorse and would gladly repeat their crimes, some do experience mixed emotions. As one person put it to Husseini, no one wants to kill their sister. And yet the society they live in is so rigid, they don't feel they have another choice.

So what can lead to a loss of honor so great that it could lead to one of these murders? Some examples from cases covered in the book: if a woman is raped, has a consensual sexual relationship before marriage, commits adultery, becomes pregnant out of wedlock, dates or marries someone that their family has not approved, tries to divorce a husband that the family does approve of, is seen walking down the street with a man that her family does not know. Or, most distressing of all, if there is gossip about a woman having done any of these things, even if there's no proof. And for many women whose families have emigrated to Europe or North America, the reason is often that a young woman became too acclimated to the West -- wore revealing clothes, spent time with people not from their community, rebelled in any way against their parents' way of life. And that's what's really at stake for so many people -- the preservation of a way of life that is increasingly becoming outdated. A way of life that devalues women and relegates them to property.

The stories in Murder in the Name of Honor will break your heart. Not only are the many accounts of honor killings graphically violent, but the senseless loss of life will weigh on you. I can't shake the story of one young woman who was beaten to death in front of a crowd of twenty people -- including members of law enforcement -- some of whom recorded the murder on their cell phones. After thirty minutes of this brutal attack, the killers buried the woman in a shallow grave with the corpse of a dog, to show how worthless she was. It makes me sick to think of it.

If you re-read the book's subtitle, you'll probably be able to understand the main problem that I had with this one. As Husseini puts it, this is the true story of her heroic fight against an unbelievable crime. I thought perhaps that was something that her publisher suggested, a simple marketing ploy. But throughout the book are subtle and not-so-subtle pats on her own back that are ultimately off-putting. I fully acknowledge that her work is important and that she has done a great deal to raise awareness and be a catalyst for change. But I hate bragging in any form. Why not tell me what happened and let me decide that you're heroic? It's a more gracious approach that won't detract from your cause.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Pink glove dance!

I had to share this video that a co-worker forwarded to me. Apparently it was created to promote breast cancer awareness and this line of pink gloves in particular. If the video gets 1,000,000 hits, the glove manufacturer will make a huge contribution to this hospital in Portland as well as offer free mammograms to women in the community. That's what I like to call win-win-win. Pass it on!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

31. Alex Cross's Trial by James Patterson and Richard Dilallo

I placed a request for this book at my library after coming across the title somewhere. As previously mentioned, I enjoy James Patterson and his Alex Cross series especially. There were a lot of people in line ahead of me, so I didn't think I would be able to read this one for a couple of months. But I got the call, and so here I am with another James Patterson response.

Alex Cross tells the incredible story -- passed down through the generations -- of an ancestor's courageous fight for freedom.

Separated by time.
From his grandmother, Alex Cross heard the story of his great-uncle Abraham and his struggles for survival in the era of the Ku Klux Klan. Now Alex passes the family tale along to his own children in a book he's written -- a novel called Trial.

Connected by blood.
A lawyer in early-1900s Washington, D.C., Ben Corbett fights against oppression and racism -- and risks his family and his life in the process. When President Theodore Roosevelt asks Ben to return to his hometown to investigate rumors of the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan there, he cannot refuse.

United by bravery.
In Eudora, Mississippi, Ben meets the wise Abraham Cross and his beautiful daughter, Moody. With their help, Ben discovers that lynchings have become commonplace. Ben vows to break the reign of terror -- but the truth of who is really behind it may break his heart. Written in the fearless voice of Detective Alex Cross, Alex Cross's Trial is a gripping story of murder, love, and unparalleled bravery.

Plot summary courtesy of

I didn't know anything about the plot before I picked up the book and read the book jacket. Based on the title alone, I thought Alex Cross's Trial would be about Alex Cross being put on trial (right? and that sounded good to me). But no, this is really a book called Trial by Alex Cross. Okay, got it. My first reaction? Alex Cross and James Patterson have remarkably similar writing styles. I have a feeling that Patterson had this story in mind and the use of the Alex Cross name was just a way to guarantee book sales. He certainly got me, although I almost always go to the library first and bookstore second. There really wasn't any other good reason for the Alex Cross angle. Patterson could have cut back and forth between scenes of Alex writing and his chapters or included a chapter at the beginning and end showing Alex decide to write and finish up. Instead, there was a short introduction from Alex explaining why he wanted to write the story. Take that page out, and the book can stand by itself. Don't get me wrong, this doesn't take away from the book. It's just funny to me that Patterson even bothered with the pretense of Alex Cross as the author.

I highly recommend this book. It was a good read with a good message, although it's not a mystery per se (as I was expecting). However, you might want to skip this one if you're squeamish. Patterson really didn't shy away from the grotesque in this book. There are graphic descriptions of lynchings and corpses, as well as ugly instances of discrimination. It serves its purpose of awareness, but is fairly disturbing. The only complaint that I have is pretty minor -- I thought that Patterson/Cross didn't really follow through on the problems that Ben was having with his wife; after setting up a marital crossroads of sorts, the book ended as soon as Ben returned home from his trip south to his wife's apparently waiting arms. I would have liked to see them begin to address their differences.

Actually, I do have one more complaint. In the plot summary above, Moody is mistakenly identified as Abraham's daughter when in fact she is his granddaughter. Let's get some fact-checking on that website, Patterson!

30. Portland Noir edited by Kevin Sampsell

Portland Noir is part of a heralded series with a simple format: a short story collection by locally based authors, each set in a particular neighborhood or district of the titular city. The success of Brooklyn Noir, the series' inaugural edition published in 2004, led the way for future collections set in Boston, Detroit, D.C. -- the list goes on and on, with forthcoming editions planned for Barcelona, Copenhagen and numerous other exotic locales. I saw Portland Noir on the new fiction shelf at my library and instinctively grabbed it. My mom is from Portland and her family still lives there, so I've visited the city many times. I feel a little proprietary of Portland because of this personal connection, even though I haven't it explored it very much. And I don't know about you, but I find the word "noir" intriguing. If you label something as "noir" I want to know more about it. So I thought I would love this book; what could go wrong when you added Portland and noir together?

As it turns out, plenty. I hated it. This is just not the right book for me, for a few reasons:

First, I don't really like short stories. Never have. I didn't realize how little I enjoyed them until reading this collection. I want to spend more time with characters and experience more with them. In general, these stories centered around a specific event and its short-term consequences -- and the reader was usually thrown into the middle of the story, which was jarring for me. It shouldn't take three pages for me to figure out if the narrator is male or female when the whole story is only 20 pages long. The silver lining? When I didn't like a story, at least it was going to be over soon.

Second, I don't know Portland well enough to get a thrill out of the settings. I've never even been to Powell's Books (for shame!). I thought I would connect more to the locations in the stories, and I was disappointed when I didn't.

And finally, I just didn't like these specific stories. The noir aspect didn't work for me in the short story format. The tension would be building for 19 pages and then on the twentieth, the author would pull the rug out from under you with a twist ending that was supposed to be really clever but oftentimes was too abrupt and just plain stupid. Also, the dark and gritty subject material didn't appeal to me. One story in particular featured a drug kingpin assaulting a dealer with a pencil, and I just didn't need to read that (I'll spare you the details).

Of the 16 short stories in this volume, I only really enjoyed Coffee, Black by Bill Cameron. A retired detective working as a private investigator is working on a simple vandalism case that turns out to be more complicated. It wasn't too dark, it had a real mystery, and there was plenty of coffee. That works for me. There were a couple of other stories that were somewhat clever (Virgo by Jess Walter and The Red Room by Chris A. Bolton), but I didn't whole-heartedly enjoy.

This series wouldn't be so successful if people didn't enjoy the stories. As it happens, I'm just not one of them.