Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Bottom 5 Books of 2008: Julie's List

Along with the Top 10 List I posted, I do feel that I have to do my part and post the list of the biggest disappointments, for me, of 2008.

The Ten Year Nap by Meg Wolitzer: Easily the worst book of 2008 and it had so much potential to be good. The stories were lame and so were the characters. I say "Don't bother"

The Rest of Her Life by Laura Morarity: I read her debut novel The Center of Everything and loved it, so I had high hopes. They fell flat and I probably won't read her again.

The Quickie by James Patterson: My dad gave this to me to read. While I do enjoy James Patterson, this one was just so bad. Definitely not up to his standard fare.

Blackbird by Jennifer Lauck: I'm not one into memoirs because only one view is tainted so I didn't really care for this one. There were times when I felt badly for her but they were few and far between. It's hard to root for someone when you don't like them.

Firefly Lane by Kristin Hannah: It's not that this book was horrible, because I did like the 80s references it just became so cliche and another book that could have been so much more. I did like the style of writing so I'd be willing to give Ms. Hannah another try.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Jenn's Favorites (and Not-So-Favorites) of 2008

I usually read somewhere between 50 to 60 books a year, and this year I've read about half of that (not counting books like Karen Katz's Where Is Baby's Belly Button? which I read at least ten times a day)... something about having a one year old, no hour long lunch breaks, a new online subscription to DVD rentals, and too much on my DVR.

ANYWAY, considering all that, I don't really feel it's too fair to my books to rank a top and bottom ten... that just leaves seven or eight feeling really lonely in the middle there.

So here are some of my favorites of this year:
  • Dirty Secrets Club ~ this isn't even the best of Meg Gardiner, but it reminded me of why I love her so much. I am making it a goal next year to get back to her Evan Delany novels (I had to give her up when I was pregnant, as I had concentration issues). I can't recommend this author enough! Review: The Dirty Secrets Club
  • Breaking Dawn ~ the conclusion of the Twilight Saga. I was very impressed with Stephenie Meyer's conclusion for this series. This series isn't perfect, but it is fascinating and worth the hype. I really felt the series started and ended strong. Hopefully one day soon I'll get to see the movie and can post a book-to-movie review too! Review: Breaking Dawn
  • Devil Bones ~ the latest installment of Kathy Reichs's series about forensic anthropologist, Dr. Temperance Brennan. I love Reichs and was slightly disappointed with the book prior to this in the series, Bones to Ashes. This was a return to all the things I love about Reichs. Such great writing! Review: Devil Bones
  • Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before ~ David Yoo's clever Young Adult book about teenage love and obsession. This was a delightful find and I thank the publisher for sending it my way! Review: Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before
  • Fault Line ~ Barry Eisler's new novel that breaks away from his John Rain series. This was a LibraryThing Early Reviewers book (available March 10, 2009) and I'm always glad to discover a new favorite author. I'll be going back and reading his original series. Review: Fault Line

While I can't say that I've never read a book I didn't like, there are very few I truly dislike. That said, here are some of my least favorites this year:

  • Plum Lucky ~ Why do I bother with your in-between-the-number-books, Janet Evanovich? Why? Why?

  • The Secret Scroll ~ This was a debut novel for Ronald Cutler, and while I would be interested in trying another of his novels, let this one fall to the bottom of your 'To Be Read' pile.

  • A Great and Terrible Beauty ~ While I still intend to forge ahead with this series, this one fell short of the mark. Next year, I'll see what else Libba Bray has in store for me.

  • Before You Know Kindness ~ "For the kind of people who like that sort of thing, this is just the sort of thing those people will like," a politically correct response attributed to Lincoln when an author asked Lincoln about his book, I think it applies for me here too. Chris Bohjalian is just not the author for me.

  • Dedication ~ From the writing team that brought us The Nanny Diaries, which I know was a huge success, I was expecting more from this. But I'd be willing to give the authors another shot.

New Year's Resolution: Make more time to read!!!

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Top 10 Books of 2008: Julie's List

I can't believe it's almost the end of 2008 and I've been working like a dog. Since it's that time of year again, it's yet again time for our Top 10 Lists. I'm on my 56th book for the year as I'm doing this list, so I guess it could be edited if the books I read between now and 12/31 deserve being on the list.

The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory: This is probably by far my favorite book of 2008. It's rich in elaborated history, romance, intrigue, sex and politics of the Tudor Dynasty. It's told by Mary Boleyn a.k.a. "The Other Boleyn Girl" which gives the history a unique view. The Other Bolyen Girl review

Certain Girls by Jennifer Weiner: I can always count on Jennifer Weiner to make me laugh and make me cry. This one was no different. Her view on family and mother/daughter relationships hit it on the nose. Plus it brought back one of my favorite characters, Cannie Shapiro. It's chick-lit but so much more than your standard book in that category. Certain Girls review

The Double Bind by Chris Bohjalian: I have to thank Lisa for turning me on to this brilliant writer. As you can see 2 of his books made my top 10 list for the year. If you haven't read him, maybe you should and see why. The Double Bind is truly brilliant, thought provoking and keeps you on your toes until the end. The Double Bind review

Peony in Love by Lisa See: Another author that has 2 books on my list. I have never read many books based in China and/or Chinese history. I found myself entralled with this book and I couldn't put it down. What a tale of love and mistakes that a person can't take back. How one decision can change the course of many lives. Peony in Love Review

Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen: I admit I didn't want to read this book at all. I couldn't comprehend it being good. I mean a book about the circus?! It was brilliant and so well written. The ending is perfect. A true must read even if the subject isn't something that you would usually find interesting. Water For Elephants Review

The Winter Rose by Jennifer Donnelly: Another shout out to Lisa for sending me this book to read. It was wonderful and a great historical fiction book. Ms. Donnelly writes so vividly that you feel you are right there in England during the time period. The characters are easy to love and easy to hate, which is all it takes for me to enjoy a book. I'm sure I'll be reading The Tea Rose early in 2009. The Winter Rose review

Midwives by Chris Bohjalian: See above for my rave on Mr. Bohjalian. This was another thought provoking book about how split second decisions can alter lives and how we never really move on from them. Midwives review

The Sugar Queen by Sarah Addison Allen: What a fun read. It wasn't quite as terrific as Garden Spells but definitely a lot better than most Sophomore novels. Ms. Allen will keep me coming back buying her books because of her way of writing wonderful characters and the setting of the novels. The Sugar Queen review

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See: A book about friendship, love and misunderstandings. How the way you say something and someone else interprets it can ruin lives. In a world of emails, it's easy to see how this might happen more frequently. I found again that Ms. See's writing style and subject matter to be beautiful and relatable. Snow Flower & The Secret Fan review

The River King by Alice Hoffman: I read this early in 2008 and really enjoyed it. I found the book to be haunting and a daunting coming of age story. As with most Alice Hoffman books there's a bit of magic that surrounds the story but to me that is what makes her stand out as an author. The River King review

I can't wait to see what will make the list for 2009. I highly recommend any of these books if you have not yet read them.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Jenn's Review: The Secret Story of Sonia Rodriguez

Summary: Sonia Rodriguez was born in the United States, but her parents are Mexican immigrants who came to California before she was born. Her father has three Social Security numbers, her mother is pregnant (again), and neither of them speaks English. Sonia's mother spends most of her time in bed, watching soap operas, and letting Sonia clean up after her brothers. Sonia's father works dutifully to support his family, but he knows that his daughter's dreams are bigger than making tamales for family get-togethers. When Sonia attempts to put school work before her familia, her mother decides that it's time for Sonia to visit her grandmother in Mexico to learn "the ways of the old world." While in Mexico, Sonia spends time with her wise grandmother and her cousin Maria who teach her that while familia is important, the most important thing is to follow your heart. Sonia returns to the States determined to succeed in school, but the birth of her new twin siblings, inappropriate advances from her drunk uncle (Drunkle), and a forbidden relationship with an El Salvadorian boy push school to the back burner. If only Sonia can find the time to cook dinner, secretly meet with her boyfriend, avoid her Drunkle, AND finish her homework, she just might be able to graduate from high school...

Review: There were several times that I had to put this book down because I was frustrated ~ not frustrated with the book so much as I was frustrated for Sonia, and I had to walk away. This is a heart wrenching story of the difficulties of growing up as a first generation Latina immigrant who is trying to strike the balance between respecting her family and her cultural heritage, and respecting herself.

While I appreciated the characters in the book and was routing for Sonia in the most heartfelt manner, there were a few nagging things that kept me from enjoying this book completely. Sitomer's writing style skips large amounts of time with a single sentence or two, and while I understand the need to move the story along, I found the abrupt jumps slightly jarring. There were times, too, when I was strongly aware that I was reading a grown man trying to find a teenage girl's voice.

I disliked his stereo-typical teachers, and while I know that there are some out there (there is a kernel of truth to all stereotypes, that's how they become stereotypes) there were an appalling number of them teaching at this school. (And as Sitomer is a teacher who defies those stereotypes, I am surprised he 'went there.')

I also found the ending a little too fluffy, fairytale-happy. Don't get me wrong, I am glad that everything worked out for Sonia, but it wasn't very realistic. Sitomer spends so much time in gritty, gruelling details to make this story true to life, it felt like he took an easy out. I understand it was meant to be inspirational (as the sign in one of Sonia's classroom's states, "Good things happen to those who try"), but this was winning the 'good things' jackpot.

As a final note and a personal aside, I must say that I enjoyed the Spanglish in this book. As a teenager I babysat for two Ecuadorian girls and I would come home speaking a mixture of Spanish and English all the time. It brought back some great memories and made me smile.

All in all, a good cultural read... but it could have been better.


Thursday, December 25, 2008

Julie's Review: Love and Other Natural Disasters

Summary: Eve is grateful for the family and friends that surround her Thanksgiving table, including her husband, Jonathon; their five-year-old son, Jacob; and a baby due to make its arrival in a few short weeks. But in this predictable second novel from Shumas (Five Things I Can't Live Without), Eve's idyll gets trashed when a phone call interrupts their holiday dinner and exposes Jonathon's too-cozy friendship with another woman. What turns out to be an emotional affair launches a maelstrom of emotions for both Eve and Jon, neither of whom realized how much their marriage had disintegrated. As they struggle to work things out, they learn a lot about themselves and each other. Throughout the novel, Shumas, a therapist, invites the reader to consider the question—is it cheating if nothing physical happens? Shumas relies heavily on the standard marriage-in-trouble arc (separation, his disheveled bachelor apartment, her ill-fated fling), and readers familiar with the formula will know what to expect. ~amazon.com

Review: I'm always thankful for free books (LibraryThing.com's Early Reviewers group) and this one I'm definitely glad I didn't buy it. It was a disappointment because I was expecting something more than typically chick-lit and it was nothing but typical. Love and Other Natural Disasters is the story of how Eve finds out on Thanksgiving that her husband has been having an emotional affair with another woman. She finds this out because he's stupid enough to answer the phone to a distressed and lonely other woman. Oh and Eve's about ready to have their 2nd baby. She immediately kicks him out and the story doesn't really go any other direction than what you'd typically expect.

The interesting thing about this book was that it wasn't a physical affair, in other words no sex was involved by Jon or the other woman. We don't even get to meet Laney which to me is a disappointment and might have been an interesting climatic point to have Eve meet her. I personally think that an emotional affair can be more damaging to a marriage than one that involves sex. Sex to men, is Sex. It's not an emotional connection. Sure it can lead to one but let's be real, men and women view sex very differently. I would be extremely hurt if I found out that my husband was telling another woman things that he couldn't tell me or the antidotes that he used to amaze me with, even if I've heard them all before.

I liked Eve but I didn't love her. I didn't think Jon was a 3 dimensional character and was pretty much a stereotype for a cheating husband. He's only sorry he got caught and really didn't understand what he did was wrong. Oh and of course it was Eve's fault. (picture me rolling my eyes) Hey relationships go both ways and sure she wasn't completely interested but she was very much in love with her husband.

The ending was OK but nothing fantastic and left it open ended. I didn't like how Eve left it up to Jon to decide if they were going to give it another try. He's the one who screwed up, why should he get to decide?

Final Take: 3.0/5

Monday, December 22, 2008

Jenn's Review: Fault Line

Summary: In Silicon Valley, the eccentric inventor of a new encryption application is murdered in an apparent drug deal. In Istanbul, a cynical undercover operator receives a frantic call from his estranged brother, a patent lawyer who believes he is the next victim.

And on the sun-drenched slopes of Sand Hill Road, Silicon Valley's nerve center of money and technology, old family hurts sting anew as two brothers who share nothing but blood and bitterness wage a desperate battle against a faceless enemy.

Alex Treven has sacrificed everything to achieve his sole ambition: making partner in his high-tech law firm. But then the inventor of a technology Alex is banking on is murdered... and the patent examiner who reviewed it dies... and Alex himself narrowly escapes an attack in his own home. Off balance, out of ideas, and running out of time, he knows the one person who can help him is the last person he'd ever ask: his brother.

Ben Treven is a Military Liaison Element, an elite undercover soldier paid to "find, fix, and finish" high-value targets in America's Global War on Terror. Disenchanted with what he sees as America's culture of denial and decadence, Ben lives his detached life in the shadows because the black ops world is all he really knows—and because other than Alex, who he hasn't spoken to since their mother died, his family is long gone.

But blood is thicker than water, and when he receives Alex's frantic call, Ben hurries to San Francisco to help him. Only then does Alex reveal that there's another player who knows of the technology: Sarah Hosseini, a young Iranian-American lawyer who Alex has long secretly desired... and who Ben immediately distrusts. As these three radically different people struggle to identify the forces attempting to silence them, Ben and Alex are forced to examine the events that drove them apart—even as Sarah's presence, and her own secret wants, deepens the fault line between them.

A full-throttle thriller that is both emotionally and politically charged, Fault Line centers on a conspiracy that has spun out of the shadows and into the streets of America, a conspiracy that can be stopped only by three people—three people with different worldviews, different grievances, different motives. To survive the forces arrayed against them, they'll first have to survive each other.

Review: As it is my first time reading Barry Eisler, I wasn't sure what to expect. I often have trouble reading books written by ex-military or ex-agents as they tend to get a little too heavy with technical jargon for me ~this is certainly not the case here! He does an exceptional job of keeping things realistic yet accessible. Though I must say that I saw where he was going with the plot, I really enjoyed how he got there.

Eisler convincingly writes from the viewpoints of the three main characters in this novel, a literary style that can be disengaging if not done well. Each of the characters has their own conflicting politics and belief system and Eisler has made each sympathetic to the reader: the profiled, the profiler, and the self-proclaimed family martyr. In the end, Sarah, Ben, and Alex have their core ideals challenged, and find those to which they formerly clung seem far from solid.

This is a fascinating read of espionage and modern political morals. A must-read for the spy fanatics. Look for it in stores March 10, 2009.

I'm definitely adding his Rain series to my "To Be Read" pile!


Thursday, December 18, 2008

Jenn's Review: Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before

Summary: If Albert Kim has learned one thing in his tragic adolescence, it's that God (probably a sadistic teenaged alien) does not want him to succeed at Bern High. By the end of sophomore year, Al is so tired of humiliation that he's chosen to just forget girls and high school society in general, and enjoy the Zen-like detachment that comes from being an intentional loser.

Then he meets Mia Stone, and all the repressed hormones come flooding back. Mia, his co-worker at the Bern Inn, is adorable, popular, and most intimidatingly, the ex- long-term girlfriend of Ivy-bound, muscle-bound king of BHS and world class jerk, Ryan Stackhouse. But -- chalk it up to the magic of Al's inner beauty -- by the end of a summer vacuuming hotel rooms and goofing off together, he and Mia are officially "something."

Albert barely has time to ponder this miracle before the bomb drops: Ryan has been diagnosed with cancer, and he needs Mia's support, i.e. constant companionship. True, he's lost weight and he's getting radiation, but that doesn't make him any less of a jerk. And to Albert, it couldn't be more apparent that Ryan is using his cancer to steal Mia back. With the whole town rallying behind Ryan like he's a fallen hero, and Mia emotionally confused and worried for Ryan, Al's bid for love is not a popular campaign. In fact, it's exactly like driving the wrong way on a five-lane highway.

Review: This is the first novel I have read by David Yoo and what a wonderful discovery! It was really refreshing to read a story of male teenage angst written by a male author. His treatment of Asian stereotypes is witty and rings of truth (as a former teacher, I saw my share of Alberts) and his portrayal of the high school loner is insightful.

I am usually squeamish watching and even reading about someone else's embarrassing moment, but this wasn't an issue with this book (though there were plenty of embarrassing moments to be had) because Yoo gives Albert a sense of humor about his situation and as well as an astonishing ironic awareness. I was routing for Albert from his most embarrassing moments, to his weird moments, and yes, even in his stalkerish moments. Along his journey Albert emerges from the protective cocoon he's built for himself only to find that participating in his own life can be hard, but well worth it... and so is the book.

This book was funny, clever, and a beautiful story about self discovery and teenaged romance. I highly recommend it, and in the mean time I might just go back and check out his first novel, Girls for Breakfast.


Thursday, December 11, 2008

Julie's Review: The Gold Coast

Summary: What happens to a priggish, WASPy, disillusioned Wall Street lawyer when a Mafia crime boss moves into the mansion next door in his posh Long Island neighborhood? He ends up representing the gangster on a murder rap and even perjures himself so the mafiosostet lc can be released on $5 million bail. That's the premise of DeMille's ( The Charm School ) bloated, unpersuasive thriller. Attorney John Sutter has problems that would daunt even Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby. His marriage is crumbling, despite kinky sex games with his self-centered wife, Susan, who's the mistress of his underworld client Frank Bellarosa. The IRS is after Sutter, and his law firm wants to dump him. As a sardonic morality tale of one man's self-willed disintegration, the impact is flattened by its elitist narrator's patrician tones. A comic courtroom scene and some punches at the end, however, redeem the novel somewhat. ~amazon.com

Review: I read The Gold Coast ages ago when it was first released and loved it. I wish I could say the same thing for this read. I found it enjoyable enough but I think it could have been about 250 pages shorter. John Sutter is a perfect narrator. Not once did I want to see the story through another character's eyes. He's got a great wit about him and the sarcasm is perfect. He tells it like it is, or at least how he sees it, but as a reader you believe him because he's telling you his story and how he now sees it.

Basically, John is bored. He's going through a mid-life crisis and when the Mafia Don moves in next door, John finds his outlet for his boredom. Mr. Frank Bellarosa is an interesting character and he intrigues John. Looking back on it, John can see that it was supposed to be that way. The way Frank drew him into his life and ended up using him. John's married to a blue blood lady named Susan Stanhope Sutter. Frankly, I didn't like her. I found her annoying and self-involved. She was rich and didn't do much but ride her horses and ride other things. It's pretty obvious from the get go what's going to happen because John's reflecting on this period in his life but it's still interesting to see how it unfolds.

I found myself fascinated with the Mafia Don but not to the same degree that John and Susan were because well as a reader you know from the beginning that this guy is T-R-O-U-B-L-E. Not just because he's a Mafia Don but just because you know it's not going to end nicely for John and Susan. For all of Susan's faults, John does love her.

What I found interesting is how this book was published 18 years ago and so many of the stereotypes are still true today. Granted it wasn't that long ago but you hope to see a bit more progress. What fascinated me was the life on the Gold Coast and how people with "old" money act and treat others. How even when they are broke they'll hold onto the family estate.

Overall, I enjoyed entering the world of the rich elite again and reading John Sutter's story. I'm definitely looking forward to reading the sequel The Gate House, which is really why I re-read it now. As I said earlier, I think it could have been told in less pages. It's really the only downfall of the book.

If you are looking for an entertaining book involving the mafia and the downfall of a man, then this is the read for you.

Final Take: 3.75/5