December 30, 2012

The Princess of Dhagabad by Anna Kashina

I picked up this book for ten cents at a garage sale, and I've been putting off reading it. Not sure why, but I just didn't have the urge to actual read it until today. And I wish I hadn't have waited. This turned out to be a pretty good book.

The Princess of Dhagabad has long awaited her twelfth birthday. For it is on this day that she is allowed to have the bottle that her grandmother left to her. And she gets quite the surprise that the bottle holds a Djinn. An all-powerful being that is essentially her slave since she holds the bottle. At first indifferent, he grows to be her closest friend and when she must marry, he is there to make sure that everything can go as smooth as possible. He just doesn't account for the Princess's wishes and sense of adventure, and the belief that she can change things that have never before been changed.

The Princess is pretty inquisitive. She has a genuine love of the world around her and it frightens Hasan, her Djinn, that she too could become like him because of the knowledge that she surrounds herself with. He, himself, is somewhat mysterious, but because the history of the Djinn and himself are laid out, it gives an interesting perspective into the life of the Djinn and how he became one. The Princess's parents, and indeed many of the people at the palace, aren't as kind or supportive of her though and at many times it feels like it is the Princess and the Djinn against the world. Which is somewhat unbelievable. I'd like to think there are more redeemable people than just the two of them.

The plot meandered along. I had a sense it was more setting up the characters and the relationships before the next book. But that was ok, I thought the history and story telling behind the characters was interesting. The writing was a tad juvenile, but easy to lose yourself in. I liked when the Princess had her world view but found Hasan's point of view to be a little over flowery. It didn't detract too much from the book though. There were some mature themes that I didn't expect in this book. The Sultan and his harem were described in great detail, including some of those activities that they partake in. Not that that's a bad thing, just not what I expected from this young adult seeming fantasy story. There is a little bit of violence, but it is not nearly as descriptive as the sex scenes are.

I'll definitely be looking out for the second book in the series. I'm eager to see what happens and if Hasan and the Princess can overcome more obstacles with their friendship.

The Princess of Dhagabad
Copyright 2000
272 pages

December 29, 2012

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

This is a comforting read. Sure it contains a lot of harsh topics and it isn't the best thing written out there. But as I said, it's comforting. And sometimes you just need a book like that.

Lily has grown up with the accidental death of her mother on her mind. She remembers little of it, but knows that somehow she was involved, and her father seems to blame her too, or at least he's not very nice to her. Her only companionship is a woman who her father has hired named Rosaline. Rosaline is ok, but with the racial tension in the South soon finds herself in trouble for trying to register to vote. Lily helps her escape prison and together they run away to South Carolina where Lily hopes to find some clue to her mother's past and find out if she was ever loved by either of her parents.

Lily is a strange girl, but she seems loving in her own way, even if she does get into quite a bit of trouble all the time. When it comes right down to it she's helpful and wants so desperately to fit in somewhere that she becomes misguided at times. Luckily the sisters who take her and Rosaline in are as charming as they are different. August, especially, is a good mother figure for Lily while June is somewhat standoffish and May a good friend. They all seem to appreciate each other though and I think that's what makes this novel so comforting.

The plot is a bit unbelievable. The fact that they could so easily flee from the town and her father and not be questioned more along the way makes you suspend disbelief a little bit. But the overall plot of belonging somewhere is a universal one. Everybody wants to feel that. And I liked the way all the characters interacted. Since it does take place during the Civil Rights movement there is always that in the background too and it causes some tension in the book. But largely the book didn't focus on that as much as it focused on the community the sisters had built and their acceptance of Lily and her friend Rosaline. The book does contain some religion, the sisters have created their own involving a statue of Mary that has hints of Catholicism and other spiritual aspects. Those parts can get a little drawn out, but does show the type of people they are.

A nice book, one that let's you see the light side of humanity. Even if it isn't perfect, it is still a good book for curling up by the fire with.

The Secret Life of Bees
Copyright 2002
302 pages

December 28, 2012

Wesley the Owl by Stacey O'Brien

I have a great love of owls. It all started when my uncle nicknamed me "owl". But rather than praising my virtues of wisdom, he used it in a more derogatory way to imply I was a snobbish know-it-all. As much as it hurt, I finally told myself to turn it around and use the animal as a totem of sorts instead, and felt a lot better when I focused on that positive aspect. So there's that connection, and then there's just the fact that they're beautiful creatures.

Wesley the owl was adopted by the author Stacey O'Brien when he was just a few days old. A research at Caltech, she worked with the owl department and was found to be the perfect fit for this owl as he could never be released to the wild because of an injury. So she took him on with only a little idea of what that would mean over time. For nineteen years she cared for Wesley and developed a connection with him that would last the entire time he was alive. Mixed into the book are anecdotes about Wesley and general facts about owls and a little smattering of Stacy's personal life; as it was deeply intertwined with Wesley's life.

Stacy is a pretty fair narrator of herself. She doesn't hold back some of her flaws or embarrassing moments (like Wesley trying to mate with her) but she also doesn't seem self conscious either. It's clear that she was pretty happy with Wesley in her life, even if it did keep her from developing a human relationship. Wesley is just adorable and I enjoyed all the descriptions of his antics and emotions. I always thought of owls as pretty stoic and was surprised to learn at just how much goofiness they possess. And the bond the two had together was pretty incredible.

This book progressed slowly at times, and I think that's because O'Brien just tried to fit a sheer amount of information, stories, and other things into a somewhat small book. I could have easily seen this book be expanded into two different ones; one about owls and the other the personal story of Wesley. But even if it's a little rushed it was still a very enjoyable read. You got to learn about O'Brien as a person and her love for the little owl she raised. It almost made me want an owl myself, but to be honest, just hearing the detail of everything she had to do to care for Wesley and how it impacted her social life, it's not a task to be taken lightly and really, only a professional should ever attempt it. Wild animals are wild animals, and it's very rare that they should be included in someone's home. And like all animals, even Wesley, there does come a time when they grow old and leave us, and like most animal memoirs, that is not left out of this book.

This was definitely a book for owl lovers or even just regular animal lovers. With the photos that showed Wesley you could really get a sense of this unique owl and it added to the book as well. Because "Whoooo" could resist an owl (sorry had to do it)?

Wesley the Owl
Copyright 2008
224 pages

The Black Stallion Returns by Walter Farley

The Black Stallion series is one that is known to many. The story of a boy, shipwrecked with a wild horse who becomes his friend, captures the heart of many. This book, The Black Stallion Returns, is the second in the series. You don't necessarily have to read the first book before this one, but it does help to read it for background, so I recommend going in order.

Alec has had quite a shake up. First someone tries to kill the Black Stallion, and then, just hours later, his real owner shows up to claim him. After all that he's been through he can't stand to lose the horse. So when an opportunity comes for him to go visit the horse in Arabia, Alec takes it. But the journey will be much more dangerous than he can imagine and even if he gets there, it's no guarantee that he will be able to get his horse back, or even make it out alive.

Alec is the main character of the series. And we can clearly understand his love for his horse. But to be honest, we never really know any of his other hopes and dreams, and it would have been nice to have his personality expanded on those things. Still, he does take good care of his horse, and is brave for wanting to go to the unknown to find him again. Henry the trainer, and Mr. Volance, the men who go with Alec to the desert aren't really described that much either. We know Henry is kind of cranky and Mr. Volence is the money of the operation, but they don't feature much in the book. The Bedouin though, are described somewhat stereotypically although not unkindly and are described as a fierce but hospitable people.

The plot is actually pretty good. There is a lot of adventure, and while there is violence and murder, it's not very descriptive so I think this is still an ok book for young readers. It's more a story of overcoming odds and finding something that you care about no matter what. So it is inspiring in that regard. It's a little too fast paced at time, I think this book could have easily been twice as long. And there are some things that wouldn't really happen in reality, but this book is good for escape.

It's an exciting adventure about a horse. There's not much to dislike about that. And for children and even adults revisiting their childhood, this is a good book to read.

The Black Stallion Returns
Copyright 1945
199 pages

The Black Stallion Legend by Walter Farley

Anyone growing up in the eighties, nineties, or even before has heard of the Black Stallion. It was such a popular book series that everyone had at least one of the books. This book, The Black Stallion Legend, is actually the last book in the series (there was one written after but it's a prequel) and it was written over forty years after the first book was. Which may account for why it's such a drastic change from the original tone of the series. And while you don't necessarily have to read the rest of the series to understand this book, it does help for character background.

Alec has been a bit distracted lately because of all the pressures of home. Sure he's a well known jockey. He's ready for a vacation and the distraction of his girlfriend, but when he learns that she has been killed in an auto accident, he loses it. Headed West, with his horse The Black Stallion in a trailer, he keeps driving and driving until he comes to a desert. There he stops and turns himself and The Black free only to discover that among the Native Americans in the area, they are the stuff of legend.

Alec is very very dark in this book. He ranges between grief, and rage, and hopelessness and it's sad and disturbing all at the same time. And it's actually pretty realistic of real grief and the range of emotions a person will experience when losing someone important in their lives. He has his horse, but even that is sporadic, especially out in the wild. His trainer, who features at the beginning of the book, is gruff and none to nice and I couldn't bring myself to like him in this book. Same with his dad, who seemed very indecisive and ineffective. Even the Native Americans weren't described that well. We had no sense of what kind of people they were, only that in their limited interaction with Alec they thought he was the person from their legend.

The plot was reaching a bit. It moved way too fast and there needed to be more detail for what Farley was trying to pull off with this novel. All the events and the way things happened just didn't seem quite right and the only way I could make them line up in my head was to imagine that Alec had gone into shock and was actually dreaming everything that happened. Otherwise, it just didn't make sense. This book, as said before, was decidedly gruesome and sad compared to the hopeful tone the other books seemed to carry. But it did contain a good lesson grief.

For an avid lover of the Black Stallion series, this book is going to be a shock and perhaps even a disappointment. It was almost as if Farley's personal grief was too much for him, and he poured it all out into his writing.

The Black Stallion Legend
Copyright 1983
177 pages

It's Easy Being Green by Crissy Trask

I had a hard time trying to decide what to rate this book. While it had a lot of good tips and ideas, it also had a lot of outdated ideas, ideas that just plain disturbed me, and so many links to websites and really it seemed you could learn much more just by using your computer and never touching this book.

This book claims that it is a handbook for Earth-Friendly Living and it breaks itself into different parts to complete that mission. First it exposes those Green Living Myths and says what the actual truth about living green is. Like saying that green products are expensive and instead explaining why they are not expensive. Next it talks about how the average person can make a difference, regardless of how busy they are. Part Three covers Eco-Tips for living greener and includes check-boxes so you can keep track of how you are doing. These tips range from travel to cleaning to food. Buying Green is next and it tells you what to look for and some common terms when looking at labels. Green Shopping Online is a huge listing of websites dedicated to green products. And getting involved has more online listings so you can get involved with campaign writing and other initiatives. Lastly there are Resources to help the Earth, which again, is a listing of online sites.

My main problem with this book is that it is mostly online listings of websites. You could easily look up all this information without this book just by typing in what you're searching for. So in buying this book, you actually wasted a resource in that regard. Next, because websites close down, change, etc., this book is ineffective even only six years later as not all of those sites are around anymore (although some still are). The next problem I had was with some of the tips. There was actually a tip saying that you should use your microwave for cooking and reheating more than your stove because it saves energy. Ok, in theory this is true, but microwave cooking also breaks down the nutrients in your food, which could cause you to be less healthy, and use up more resources later to improve your health as a result of not eating properly. Then there was the tip on how to reuse film canisters. Let's be honest, who in the heck has seen a film canister lately?!? And while there were quite a few tips, most of them were more appropriate for a beginner, or just common sense. Although I should say that I learned a few things from this book, so it wasn't a total waste.

My main thought is that if you are going to call a book a handbook, the information should be there for you to look at, not listed in an online website for you to go look up later. It should more appropriately be called a guide. And I do like that it encourages Green Living, I just don't think that it's a lasting book or one that should be referenced now that it seems to have gotten outdated. It did have an easy to read format and was broken down into logical parts. The typing is small though and may be harder for older people or people with weak eyesight to read.

There are better Green Living books out there to read (or even websites really) and while I can appreciate what this book was trying to do, I can't recommend it for reading.

It's Easy Being Green
Copyright 2006
161 pages

December 27, 2012

Many Waters by Madeline L'Engle

When it comes to the Time series by L'Engle, I'd have to say that this is my least favorite. It's not that it isn't well written, L'Engle has a beautiful way with words, but this one doesn't inspire that passion and love of reading that her other works can.

Sandy and Dennys are the normal ones of the Murray family. While the rest are odd geniuses, they are highly intelligent but average twin boys. Well, at least until they stumble into one of their dad's experiments and end up in a strange place. Even worse, they end up brutally sunburned and are only saved by the short race of people living in an oasis in the desert they are dropped in. But as they heal, they see that not all is what they think. There are strange creatures here, and a man named Noah who's story they are very familiar with.

For character development, this is one of the better books of L'Engle. We never see much of the twins in the other books and they are the main characters of this one. And L'Engle really takes the time to describe them and their personality, and most importantly their differences as they are twins. And the people they encounter; Noah, his father, his daughter, they are all bright examples of the goodness a person can be while still ultimately being human. Even the Seraphim and Nephilim were interesting concepts introduced to this book. And the mammoths were incredibly adorable and made me wish they were real.

The plot, as you may have guessed, centers around the Biblical flood. And as such, this book has a religious tone to it, although not in the usual way. L'Engle likes to combine fantasy with science and religion and her style is very unique. But this one definitely was more religious than a great many of her other books. And I did find the writing in this one to be a little less beautiful than in the others. Before she would include poetry and detailed descriptions of lovely things. This one she just told the story. And it even had some sexual undertones to it which was another thing I wasn't used to seeing in her books. It's not bad, just not her usual.

I dearly love L'Engle's books and always feel a sense of home when I read them. Just because this one isn't my favorite doesn't mean it's not a worthy read. I strongly encourage any reader to try out a book of L'Engle.

Many Waters
Copyright 1986
310 pages

A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeline L'Engle

It's hard not to like L'Engle's books. They all have such poetry and imagination that you can really escape into them. And this one, a sequel to "A Wrinkle In Time" does that first book justice and continues the story of the Murry family who are all special in their own way.

It's Thanksgiving and Meg and her brothers are back at the family home to be together. Meg is heavily pregnant and resting while her husband is away and has even invited her strange mother in law to join them as well. But it is at this dinner that her father gets a call from the President saying that a dictator in Vespugia is threatening war and bombing. Her younger brother Charles Wallace is set to a mission and using a verse that Meg's mother in law gives him, he must travel through time with the help of a unicorn to try to tweak the past and change the future.

I didn't feel as connected to the characters in this book as I did in Wrinkle of Time. I think its because everything bounces around so much and from time to time to different whens and wheres that it's hard to get a read on the characters. Meg is a constant, but she is just an observer telling Charles Wallace's story so we don't get much of a sense of her in this. Being that previously she was always a child, I had somewhat looked forward to learning of her as an adult, but alas, that is just not for this book. Charles Wallace is so many different people during his travels in time that he too is not described greatly aside from being brave in a unique sort of way. But the people he is in the past all have interesting stories, and there is a chain that ties them all together through history.

I liked the concept of the time travel and the tweaking of certain events to get a better future. I think L'Engle handled it excellently, as she does will all scientific and mythological combinations. She just has a way of weaving unlikely things together in a beautiful way. Combine that with the poetry and legend she incorporates into her book and it's hard to be disappointed when reading something of hers. There is a little bit of religion incorporated into her works as well, but it was actually pretty light in this book as compared to some of the others. And her version of Christianity is so peaceful that it doesn't come across preachy like so many other authors do. As for this book tying in to the others of the quartet, it probably could be read alone. There isn't much mention of the other books and no important details are left out. In fact, reading it, it almost seems as if the other books didn't exist at all.

I beautifully written book with a lot of interesting topics and concepts, A Swiftly Tilting Planet is appropriate for all ages. With a little more character development, I think this could have been right there at the top of fiction.

A Swiftly Tilting Planet
Copyright 1978
278 pages

December 26, 2012

The Giver by Lois Lowry

This has been a powerful book for me ever since I first read it in the sixth grade. Something resonated from then and I return to it over and over. In fact, I credit it with developing my love of dystopian fiction in general. And while this book has its flaws, it's so much a part of my love of books that I simply don't care.

Jonas is an eleven year old living in his community. He has an assigned family unit and the coming December marks his transition to a twelve year old. This is the year that his job assignment happen and he learns his role in the community. However, the unexpected happens when he is chosen to be the new Receiver for his community, a role that is only granted to one person and the previous Receiver is growing old. It isn't until his training though that Jonas learns what this job actually entails. He is the receiver of memory, good and bad, and the only holder of true feelings besides his mentor the Giver, in a world that has chosen sameness over choice and life.

Jonas is pretty compliant. He was designed to be that way from his birth to his training at home. But his experiences with the Giver make him grow and he slowly drifts away from obedience to wanting something better for a community that doesn't want the same thing. The Giver too is a wise but pitiable figure as he has all this knowledge and wisdom and can't really share it with anyone. He has to suffer alone. The other characters are two-dimensional, as they are supposed to be. They have so long been brainwashed and chemically controlled that they are arguably not true humans, but more like robots. And their reactions to each other are so superficial that it's painful to read.

The theme is definitely dystopian. So much so because Jonas does live in the perfect world. No war, no bullies, everyone is polite; but there is no true life. There is no art or music or all the wonderful things that we take for granted in this world. That the quest for perfection and easiness has a high price to pay, and people shouldn't get complacent. And the ending, without giving too much away I do want to comment on it. It gives you a choice, and it's interesting too what people think of the ending and why. I tend to choose the more tragic route. The only thing I could really want more from this book is detail about Jonah's society. There is so much about its past and its everyday workings that I would have loved to understand.

This is definitely a book that will make you think. It will always remain on my shelf and is one that I take with me on long travels. There's a plethora of feelings that come from reading it.

The Giver
Copyright 1993
180 pages

The Lost Cyclist by David Herlihy

I enjoy books about travel, and was intrigued to find this book about a cyclist circling the world in the late eighteen hundreds.  It was rare enough to make that journey by other transportation at that time, so to do it by bicycle was impressive.  And since it's non-fiction, it's hard to believe that such feats where accomplished with the machines available at that time.

The Lost Cyclist tells three stories in a sense.  The first being that of Sachtleben and Allen, two men who traveled around the world east to west on their bikes (albeit using alternative transportation where needed).  The second story was that of Frank Lenz, a man who set out to do the same thing on his own, just in the opposite direction.  Sadly Lenz did not make it back and disappeared in the region of Turkey.  The third story would be that of Sachtleben who sets out to look for Lenz or his body and investigate what he believes to be murder.  Of course a little history on the bicycle is thrown in as well.

The story of Allen and Sachtleben was actually quite interesting and my favorite part of the book.  Which surprised me because really this book was about Lenz and his disappearance.  But we never really knew as much about him and his personality and life wasn't as described as the other two wheelmen's were.  So as much as I wondered what happened to him, it was in a detached sort of way.  There also wasn't that much about the locals they met while on their journeys.  Sure when Sachtleben was looking for Lenz's body it described some of the people he worked with, but more in line with the investigation instead of the person's life.

The whole premise of the book has an air of mystery and history to it.  I enjoyed reading about some of the races and clubs that bicyclists had at the turn of the century and never would have expected it to be so prevalent.  I also couldn't have imagined someone riding over such rough terrain on the bikes then as I can barely do it on a completely modern bike now.  They must have been in terrific shape.  Allen and Sachtleben's journey was well described and I must admit that I wish the entire book had been about it.  It wasn't that Lenz journey wasn't as daring, it was just that the way his was described was very dry and since he disappeared, it turned into a mystery where much sitting around was done and nothing happened for the last third of the book.  I admired Sachtleben's determination to find out what happened, but the author just wasn't able to pull off that part of the book well.  I felt that so much was lost in the detail about who was signing what documents and what the diplomats weren't doing, that it lost focus on the fact that a cyclist had been murdered and instead just drowned you in the paperwork that went along with it.  Which might explain some of the detachment I felt towards Lenz.

As an aside, this book did contain several journal entries, letters, and pictures that were collected by the travelers.  It was neat to see some of the places they traveled and even some of the earlier photos, which were very well done for having the cameras enduring such rough travel.  It just added to the authenticity and research for the book.  It's clear that the author did do his due diligence in that regard.

If you enjoy cycling, or travel, or just like a non-fiction book about disappearances, this would probably be a good book for you.  For me, it just wasn't engaging writing and it was hard for me to enjoy most of the book.

The Lost Cyclist
Copyright 2010
302 pages

December 10, 2012

Dead Witch Walking by Kim Harrison

This was a pretty entertaining book.  I won't say it was the best written out there, but it certainly kept me interested and was one of those great books that goes well with a bubble bath and a glass of wine.  And it's the first in a series, which means that there is more of this entertainment to be had.

Rachel is a runner for the IS (Inderland Security) a somewhat police force that monitors the magical realm of things as opposed to the human's FIB (Federal Inderlander Bureau) and is generally made up of such magical beings as witches and vampires.  Rachel herself is a witch, and due to a series of not so great assignment, she's ready to quit.  To her surprise, Ivy, a vampire hotshot in the Security also wants to force, but once that happens a price can be placed on their heads, and Rachel has to stay alive long enough to figure a way out of her contract.

Rachel is an ok character.  A bit too brash and she has trouble thinking things through sometimes.  But I guess that makes her realistic.  Her love interest, Nick, I didn't care for too much.  I think he just reeks of trouble and I couldn't find too many good qualities about him.  Ivy was one of the better characters.  She gets mad a little too often but she's more level-headed and seemed the stronger of the two girls.  Jenks, the pixie, was a lot of fun at least and I enjoyed reading about him and his family.  The bad guys weren't even too bad in this.  They had a  mysterious quality about them and that kept things interesting.  I just wish more time had been spent on Rachel making her a well-rounded character.  As it was she just had a few extremes and that's what made her.

The plot was decent.  There was a lot of action and the book was constantly moving and things were always being done.  I don't think Rachel ever sat still except for when she was hurt.  Which was somewhat unbelievable, but oh well.  I did enjoy all the different mytsical type beings coming together and thought that the explanation for how the world turned out the way it did was well thought out.  I would have liked to have more detail, but at least I got a good giggle out of how a genetically modified tomato is what started the who downward cycle of the human race.  And people wonder why I eat organic.  There's no sex in this book bu there is some romance.  And with Ivy being a vampire there's a bit of tension between her and Rachel, but I thought it was an intriguing way to develop their working relationship.  There is also violence in this book and magic and a myriad of other things that some people don't like, but then again those people probably shouldn't be reading a book with "witch" in the title.

Very entertaining and I'll be sure to read the next one when I come across it.  It seems like this is a great series for fun, light reading.

Dead Witch Walking
Copyright 2004
416 pages

December 08, 2012

The Insider's Guide to the Peace Corps by Dillon Banerjee

I'm going to join the Peace Corps.  Not right away of course, I still have responsibilities that I have to take care of before I can go (my parents would not appreciate me dumping two cats and two chinchillas on them).  But when I don't have those responsibilities anymore, I'm going.  After reading this book, I'm even more determined to do it. 

And it's not because this book is all sunshine and rainbows.  This book tells it as it is and I think its very truthful.  Banerjee has taken the time to answer all sorts of questions you could think of (or not think of!) about the Peace Corps.  He starts with the application process, and I've got to tell you, I didn't realize that there were some many needed qualifications to become a volunteer.  It's competitive!  Then he goes in to what to pack and what you can usually find in country.  Next is the actual training, since it varies from program to program, he offers the basics, but it does help to know how the training process takes place.  There's a short section on managing your money and then its on to "Living like the Locals" which gives an idea of what your accommodations will be.  There's a rather large section on Medical Concerns, which was nice because that's a big worry for some.  Next is a section on the postal service and phone calls and what's available.  There is a section on technology, and sadly for the technophobes out there, most gadgets are really not that useful where the volunteers are located.  There are also sections on other volunteers, what kind of work you'll be doing, and the rules of the Peace Corps.  It finishes out with how to travel around while in country and what to do after the stint in the Peace Corps, and of course useful appendices.

I learned so much from this book and voraciously read it.  Couldn't put it down in fact which made for a sleepy day the next day.  But that's ok.  As I said before it further convinced me that this is what I want to do.  I like the way he approached all the topics too.  He told what was good, what was not, and gave points of view from all different sides.  In fact, its very rare that I could find him be biased anywhere about anything.    There is a section on negative aspects of the Peace Corps, but he gave the reasonings behind these and balanced it out with the positives of everything.  Additionally, there are also a couple of scary sections, like sexual harassment and some of the illnesses.  But Banerjee takes the time to explain statistics and how these situations are handled and everything seemed to be well taken care of.  In fact, in most cases it wasn't really any different than the statistics here in the United States.

A fantastic book if you're thinking about joining the Peace Corps or volunteering overseas.  It really goes in depth on the program and could probably change a few peoples minds who are considering the program.  It at least gives all the facts honestly and is definitely a book I will be keeping around to peruse over and over.

The Insider's Guide to the Peace Corps
Copyright 2009
181 pages

December 06, 2012

Tales from the Yoga Studio by Rain Mitchell

I've just recently started taking yoga classes. And let's just say that I am not a natural. It's all I can do to try to touch my toes. But I enjoy striving to become better at it and figured reading a book might increase my enjoyment. And this book wasn't too bad. I'd probably give it about 3.5 stars. There was definite room for improvement, but it did keep my attention.

Lee owns a small independent yoga studio where she is the main teacher. There are other classes of course, but between herself, and her husband who sometimes helps out, and her friend who rents a small room for massage, it's a close-knit operation. Well, minus the husband aspect. As he has recently moved out to "find himself" Lee hasn't been feeling herself lately. Added to that is an offer to sell her skills to a corporate yoga studio and she's feeling quite a bit of pressure. But she still wants to present the best classes possible to her students. She wants to be there for them, and when they all have problems of their own, they need the clarity of a yoga class as well.

I like how this book showed that a yoga instructor isn't perfect. Lee does her best but she has her own flaws and problems in life and isn't as "zen" as she would probably like to be. All of the other characters also have relatable problems. Imani is getting over a miscarriage, Katherine is a recovering addict, Stephanie stresses too much about work and Graciela just wants to have an audition go ok despite an injury. The yoga class kind of brings them together and shows that with the right kind of community and support, things can be achieved. However, that's the women in this story. When we talk about the men, at least Conor is quite redeeming, and I enjoyed reading about him. But the rest of them, either have a lot of issues or are complete jerks (Lee's husband anyone?) and I can't find their redeeming qualities. I guess I could spare Imani's husband some of the criticism, but he didn't really show up much in the book. Overall I would have liked to have seen more of the characters and for this to have been a longer book.

I think overall the message in this book is about growing. Each of the characters has to work through the problems ultimately by themselves. They have their friends supports but no one can automatically change something for you. You have to do it yourself. Add that in to the fact that you have to be pretty dedicated and focused to do yoga and I think that the whole thing is a learning experience in life. As for the yoga itself, I was proud to say I understood a couple of the poses that they mentioned. But then the vast majority were completely incomprehensible to me. Guess I'm just not that far along in my classes yet. But if you have even had one yoga class, you'll understand a little bit about what is talked about in this book. The writing style itself is a bit choppy and jumps around a bit so its hard to keep a timeline. But it is friendly and approachable and that somewhat makes up for it.

As said before, there is room for improvement but overall this book was comfortable. I won't go as far as to say it is as relaxing as yoga, but it was a nice read.

Tales from the Yoga Studio
Copyright 2011
279 pages

December 02, 2012

A Stone Creek Christmas by Linda Lael Miller

Linda Lael Miller is my guilty pleasure. Sure I read other romances, but I don't seem to enjoy them nearly as much as I do hers. And since this one combined a Miller romance with Christmas, well it definitely "tis the season."

Olivia is a veterinarian in the small town of Stone Creek. Her brother, Brad, once a famous magician is now building a shelter that she'll be the head of. He's brought in Tanner Quinn to build it too. Tanner is a good guy, but flighty. After the death of his wife he sent his daughter to boarding schools with high security to try to keep her safe, and has moved around quite a bit, never staying in the same place year after year. So when he develops an attraction to Olivia, it pulls at him a little bit. Nevermind the fact that she thinks she can talk to animals and may be just a little strange in his opinion.

Olivia was pretty tame for a heroine of the book. Sure she had her thing with animals but it is downplayed so I kind of wonder why it was mentioned at all unless it was just to make the dog, Ginger, a more interesting character. I kind of would have liked to see more about it. Tanner was a pretty believable character though. His desperation between wanting to keep his daughter safe yet still wanting to make her happy was a conflict that I think a lot of parents would have and could relate to. And the daughter was cute, although she definitely acted older than her age. The only real problem I have with the characters is that they usually seem to be insanely rich or at least know someone or is related to someone who is. It'd be nice to have an average joe thrown in once in awhile who has some money issues. But I suppose that would ruin the fantasy of it all.

The plot was simple. Tanner comes to town, meets strange veterinarian, has worries about daughter and they all have family issues that they have to come to terms with. But they threw in the Christmas aspect and a little bit of magic (supernatural) and it gives it a twist. Since this is a romance novel I do have to say that there are sex scenes in the book. They aren't long or greatly graphic by any means, but they are there. So if you prefer your romances without the love scenes, Miller is probably not an author for you. The rest of the writing is down to earth and comfortable and it made it an enjoyable holiday read because of all the Christmas aspects in it.

I'll definitely continue to read Miller. It's hard to find a terrible book by her and I enjoy most of her books that I've come across.

A Stone Creek Christmas
Copyright 2008
211 pages

Gamers by Thomas K. Carpenter

**This book was received as a Free Advanced Reader's Copy**

Gamers is a book about, well, Gamers.  Running with the dystopian theme that is so popular right now, Gamers provides a look at a future where people have shifted over to a very technological reality.  I actually enjoyed this book quite a bit, and thought that it offered an interesting approach to the genre.  I'd probably give it 3.5 stars because of some things I'd like to see improved, but even so, it had a way of drawing you into the story.

Gabby is a somewhat hacker and gifted student that is preparing for her Final Raid.  In Gabby's world, people are ranked by points that will tell whether they get into a job by university or be regulated into the lower class jobs offered to those who don't score high enough.  These points are built up by performing regular tasks, playing games at school, and in general succeeding at life.  When Gabby's reality is disrupted by a group dubbing themselves the Frags, she learns that her world is not quite what it seems.  LifeGame is more real than one could imagine, and the consequences for not scoring high are dire.  Especially in the Final Raid, which will determine her and her classmates fates.

Gabby is an ok character.  She seems to genuinely care for her friend.  Her parents are a different story but we don't see much of them so it doesn't seem to matter if Gabby likes them or not.  The Frags as a group were interesting, but we only had a limited time with them so I couldn't really feel connected to them or their plight.  I would have liked to know more about this and why Gabby trusted them so much, but I suspect that is reserved for the next book in the series.  Gabby's friend also had a limited time in the book but Zaela is a character I connected with.  She's an artist, and while that's not highly valued in Gabby's worl,  I value it.  By contrast, Gabby spends more time with her arch-nemesis, the leader of a group called the Evil Dolls during the final raid.  Which don't get me wrong, she was a complex character, I just don't think she should have had more time than Zaela since she's so integral to Gabby's life.

The plot was interesting.  Being a past gamer myself I was able to appreciate the Dungeons and Dragons type setting of the last raid.  In fact, it may have even brought back some memories for me.  That being said, people who aren't gamers might not understand some of the lingo that was used, but I don't think it was greatly devastate their enjoyment of the book.  I also didn't really understand the role of the government in the book and why precisely they were fighting a war.  There were  hints at it all over, but nothing was ever really explained about why such an entity came into the power it had.  I also realize this could come in the later books, but it would have been nice to have a little more background to understand Gabby's world together.  As it is, it's almost alien.  The actual running of the games and the points system was well done.  I could see the concept being used efficiently to rank people, and while I may not understand why the games are so important compared to reality type life skills, it made the book interesting to read about the different types of games.  I also liked the descriptions of how they could change their rooms and appearances.  It just added to the total effect of Gabby's world.  The book is descriptive which helps because there is a lot of detail in it.  It may end somewhat abruptly, but that just gives a good reason to read the next book in the series.

An interesting take on a dystopian book.  I can definitely see myself reading the rest of the books in the series at some point.

Copyright 2011
313 pages

December 01, 2012

The Red Hat Society Eat Dessert First Cookbook

**I have made 25 of the recipes in this book**

This is quite the decadent cookbook. And with the holidays rolling around there is always plenty of room on the table for dessert. This book has quite a few fabulous recipes in it, and most are quite easy to make as well.

As most people know, the Red Hat Society is a club for ladies who primarily dress in purple and red and hats. And I'm sure there's more to it than that, but I honestly don't know much beyond that. Except that these ladies can cook, and that this book puts dessert before everything else.

There are several sections to this book. The first is "Cakes for Every Occasion". The Raw Apple Cake is the first recipe in the book and it was interesting, but it did turn out rather dense, so it was a filling type of cake. The Best Ever Coconut Pound Cake was ok, but didn't actually taste coconutty, and the recipe for glaze that came with it made entirely too much. But then there was the Peanut Butter Sheet Cake. Oh my goodness. This was about one of the most fabulous cakes I've had, and I usually prefer my peanut butter spicy as compared to sweet. Then there was the Double Delicious Banana Cake. It was good, but quite messy and the batter only made enough for 2 layers, instead of the three that it called for. A time consuming recipe in this book was the Mexican Chocolate Cake, but it was entirely worth it. There's something about a mix of spices and chocolate that is a great favorite of mine. Claire's Lavender and Lemon Cake was ok, but I didn't find it remarkable or overly note-worthy. The only real disappointment in this chapter was the German Black Forest Cake and that's because it was mostly put together from canned and boxed ingredients and it just tasted fake to me.

The next section was "Savory Cheesecakes and Pies". I made the Mini Surprise Cheesecakes to take into work and they were very popular. And for a cheesecake they weren't that hard to make either. Then there was the Fresh Blueberry Cream Pie. I greatly enjoyed this. It was definitely fresh tasting. The Strawberry pie was also delicious.

Which leads us to "Pastry Delights". I made the Cranberry-Maple Nut Scones in this section and they were amazing. Light, flaky, and filled with great ingredients, I could probably eat these for breakfast every day. The Sun Parlor Coffee Cake was also good, and another hit at work. As was the Mom's Neverl-Fail Sour Cream Coffee Cake. And they were so easy to make. The Strawberry Orange Muffins were another good breakfast item.

"Munchable Cookies" was a favored section of mine, just because cookies are so quick to make. The sugar cookies were very good, and I used some almond flour in them to really amp up the flavor, they turned out great even with the substitution. The Chocolate Banana Chocolate Chip Cookies were also very yummy and easy to make. The Chocolate Chips Cookies Plus tasted ok, but were quite crumbly for eating. I'm intrigued by crispy cookies so when I tried the Crispy Oatmeal cookies I was pleasantly surprised to find out they tasted good and still didn't involve a lot of labor to make. The Molasses Cookies though I wouldn't waste my time on again, they were just kind of blah in taste. The Southern Shortbread Cookies were popular, and I added a bit of Amaretto for a kick. And the Pumpkin Whoopie Pies I can't say I enjoyed the texture on. They might have tasted ok, but they were kind of gummy.

"Mouthwatering Bars and Luscious Brownies" was a chapter I didn't delve into too far. It had all the standards though. The Apple Nut Squares tasted healthy, and they were easy to make. The Blonde Brownies tasted ok, but they were rather dry.

Next chapter was "Old-Fashioned Favorites". I made the Bread Pudding with Whiskey Sauce and it was ok, but not something I'd make again. They had other interesting sounding recipes in the chapter though that I haven't tried yet, like Rice Pudding and Fondue.

"Frozen Delights" was a chapter I did not get into. But there were recipes for ice cream or recipes involving ice cream, like Baked Alaska.

Which brings us to "A Medley of Other Sweet Pleasures". This is a mish mash of all types of desserts, and I only read through a little bit in this chapter. But there are puddings, bread puddings, cobblers, etc.

"Brittles, Truffles and Assorted Candies" is exactly as it sounds. There are even numerous types of fudge in this section. I made the Fleming Fudge and it didn't set up right for me, but I was living at a high altitude at the time which could have had an influence.

The last section was "Thirst-Satisfying Beverages" and I didn't make anything from this chapter. Nothing particularly stood out for me but there are punches galore and even an eggnog recipe in this section.

Technically speak this book does a good job on measurements and baking times. There were only a few that I had trouble with, and one of those could have been due to the high altitude. So a beginner cook could probably be quite successful using this book. Everything is clearly spelled out.

The book was put together beautifully. Great big pictures that are well done for a good portion of the recipes. And throughout the book are pictures and stories from different Red Hat Society Club Members, which would probably be appealing for someone who is a member. I kind of just ignored them. The index is easy to use and each recipe is credited to the lady that submitted it. This would be a great book for someone in this club or someone who enjoys making desserts.

November 30, 2012

Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane

I'm not sure how this book got into my personal library.  But there it was, and I felt the need to read it, as I feel about all the books on my shelves.  It was ok, but I can definitely tell that this was not something I would have picked out for myself.

A young boy grows up in Ireland.  At this time there is much talk about informers and war and other things that are a family secret.  A secret he is determined to figure out although it will take him years and he'll only get it in snippets.  With a mother who is a little bit crazy he also has a troubled homelife as well.  But really, the essence of this book is what life was like in Ireland in the 1940's and beyond.  It shows one boy's childhood amidst the troubling time.

Our narrator is ok.  He speaks a little old for his age but he's also supposed to be quite smart, so that is forgivable.  He really wants to know secrets and has that childlike curiosity that makes you feel as if he is a worthy character.  His poor mother, I just found her a bit odd and crazy and couldn't really understand her.  I got the impression that she was supposed to be normal at least part of the time, but I never really felt that way about her.  And his father, while silent and strong, isn't given as much time in this book and I thought that he could have really been an important character and used much better.  There are several brothers and sisters as well, but they also only play minor roles.

The plot had a definite theme, rooting out the family secret.  But it was quite broken up into chunks of months or years, with no real set timeline or consistency.  It made it hard to really absorb yourself in the book because you were reading one story when you were immediately thrown into the next.  That being said, the actual language of the book was terrific.  Very descriptive and almost poetic really.  I liked the tone it set.  And there are some hard themes in this book.  It talks a little bit about war and execution and dark secrets.  Nothing is greatly described in detail, but it is implied.

This was just a hard book for me to really sink in to and appreciate.  I can't say that I'd seek other books out by Deane, but if they magically appear on my bookshelf again I'll probably read them.

Reading in the Dark
Copyright 1996
246 pages


November 26, 2012

The Avalon Ladies Scrapbooking Society by Darien Gee

**This review is part of the Amazon Vine program**

I absolutely loved Gee's first book, Friendship Bread. So I eagerly delved into The Avalon Ladies Scrapbooking Society, and it was very good as well. Something about Gee's writing is just so approachable and it makes you sink into the book.

This book kind of leaves off where Friendship Bread ended. But the good news is that you don't really need to have read the first book to read this one. It can stand on its own. It details the lives of several women, who have one common thread in that they are all part of a scrapbooking society in town. A society put together by the odd, but well meaning Bettie, who has a few issues of her own. All of them have things that are troubling them, but they grow and learn in the book and discover how important community really is.

There are a lot of characters in this book. So much so that my only complaint would be that it is hard to keep track of them and their particular storylines at times. There would be moments where I would have to flip back through the book just to make sure I had who was doing what right. But aside for that each of their stories were compelling. I especially felt drawn to the character Yvonne. She was a strong woman and made a better life for herself after removing herself from a toxic family. She has her troubles, but she gets through them and does it cheerfully. Isabel I didn't like as much, while she has an open heart she seemed whiny to me and a bit all over the place. And Bettie, she is so endearing even while she is being annoying. It's hard not to like her. There are many many more characters of course, but those are the ones that stand out the most.

I like how all the characters did different things in this book. Yvonne was just trying to get by with her plumbing business. Bettie was having the mental issues. Connie was struggling to find herself. They all had real life problems and went about solving them the best they could, even if sometimes that wasn't the best route they could have taken. It made them real. While some of the plot-lines were a little unbelievable (I just can't picture Isabel's really happening) most of them stayed true to real life and I think that is why this book is so easy to connect to. Not to mention its a feel good type of book and you can't help but smile as you're reading it. Light-hearted and I couldn't find anything offensive in it.

A very nice book by Gee. While it might not be quite up to the standard of her first, I think it does present a good story and relatable characters.

The Avalon Ladies Scrapbooking Society
Copyright 2013
426 pages including recipes and scrapbooking tips

November 25, 2012

Save the Deli by David Sax

If it's about food, I'm probably going to read it. And while I'm not exactly a connoisseur of deli (although I do love me some pastrami), I thought reading about the deli would be interesting. And I was right, Sax leads us on quite the adventure in search of the remaining deli's in the world.

Sax has a mission. Save the Deli, or so the title of his book says. In reality, this book is an exploration of the delis that are left in the world. It is divided into three parts: New York, the rest of the USA, and the World. In each section he explores the delis available, gives his opinions on them, and lists out the types of food they have and whether or not they are authentic. He also talks about the types of people that run a deli, to the lifers to those who are just wanting to make a quick buck and franchise. Throughout the whole book, there is Jewish history, customs, and culture explored as well.

Sax doesn't pull any punches. If he thinks a deli is crap when he visits it, he says so. But he is also lavish in his praise for those he thinks gets it right too. In fact, he even acknowledges that he's going to make people mad when he says that New York is not the deli capital of the world, that there are better in Los Angeles and Montreal. And seeing as how New York prides itself on its delis, that's really saying something. Of course, it is just his opinion, although he seems to be well versed in deli lore. I mean the man eats tongue everywhere he goes which is just plain odd (and not something I ever think of when I think of the deli).

The whole point of this book is to point out that delis are dying around the world. People are looking for other things and cured meats are falling by the wayside. As are gefilte fish, matzo balls, and other things. And how can this be? Sax explains it as different tastes for today's Jewish youths, health reasons (most of this food can be artery clogging) and deli not being done right so that it's tasteless. The way he describes pastrami in this book makes me think that I've probably never had a good authentic one. And if I like the type I can get out of the case at Kroger, what on earth would I think of the actual stuff? I probably would have to set a tent up in front of the front door of that deli and eat there every day. Sax does do a wonderful job of describing the food. Even the tongue that sounds unappealing to me he manages to make sound delicious and decadent. Enough that if I were offered a free sample I would probably take it. And I do like that he talked about the people of the deli, the so called Deli Men who made it their whole life and did it right, carving the meat against the grain. And even the history and culture of Jewish people was appreciated as aside from what everyone knows about the Holocaust, I haven't really learned much about the culture. And to make the book even better, there's a listing of what the different foods are and the different deli locations in the back.

I different kind of food book. It was part travel, part history, part commentary, and all about one man's love for the deli. His obsession made for a great book and he researched it well. I know that based on this book, a trip to Zingerman's is probably in my future.

Save the Deli
Copyright 2009
288 pages

November 18, 2012

The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai by Ruiyan Xu

Alas, I misjudged a book by its cover. I thought the cover was so beautiful that surely the book inside would be spectacular. Instead, I only felt luke-warm to it, and even a little disappointed.

Li-Jing, after having been in an accident, has aphasia. But his aphasia is special, it has rendered his speaking of Chinese completely useless, and instead, only the limited English he learned as a child is his only means of communication. With a stoic wife and young son, things become rough on his family as he struggles to communicate. So Dr. Neal is brought in and he can finally feel at ease with someone he can communicate with. A specialist in aphasia, she is there to try to help him regain his lost language.

I couldn't really find any of these characters compelling. They were all kind of selfish and superficial. I know the author was probably trying to show the difference is culture, but surprisingly I found all the characters the same. They put themselves first. Sure Meiling is taking care of her family in the best way that she knows how, but she doesn't even try to show some warmth or understanding of her husband's predicament. Li-Jing, while struggling with his language issues is certainly somewhat sympathetic in that regard, but otherwise as a person I found him lazy and insincere. And Dr. Neal, I don't even know where to start with her. She was the typical not so great American that seems to screw things up. I'm not insulted by this portrayal of Americans, even though several others in the book were not so kindly describe either, but rather saddened that this is the image of us.

The plot was kind of slow moving. I was intrigued by the language aspects of the book and the presentation of the aphasia, but since this book was more about its characters than that, my curiosity wasn't entirely satisfied. I can't say I enjoyed the interactions between the characters, they were somewhat painful to watch unfold. But in a way they were brilliantly written as someone describing some non-perfect people with drama in their lives. I could certainly envision this scenario playing out in real life to some extent. I just couldn't get myself fully immersed in the book though to really take anything from it.

This book just wasn't for me. Someone who likes characters (but not necessarily development towards bettering themselves) might enjoy it a bit better than I did. I won't avoid Xu's books from this point on, but I won't make a habit of seeking them out either.

The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai
Copyright 2010
340 pages

November 15, 2012

Interview With The Vampire by Anne Rice

Ok, so first off I'm going to admit that I absolutely loved the movie "Interview with the Vampire".  And not just because it had some wonderful actors in it.  The story gripped me and I felt for the characters.  So now I've finally read the book, and I have to say I'm a little disappointed.  It wasn't nearly as enchanting as the movie and while it was still decent writing, I could take it or leave it.  And this is the first book in a series, even though it could be read as a stand-alone quite easily.

We are introduced to Louis very early in the book, he is after all the main character.  And he is telling his story to a reporter.  You see, Louis has had an eventful life.  Sort of.  Louis is a vampire and he tells his tale from when he was first changed to the years after with Lestat,the vampire who changed him, and with Claudia, the child vampire he inadvertently creates.  When Claudia and Louis leave for Paris they are hoping to find out more about vampires in general, but find out that ignorance could be very dangerous for them.

Louis is our main character.  And he is very deeply described and all his motivations shown to us.  Despite this though I couldn't connect with him in the book like I could the movie.  In fact, he was downright whiny in the book.  Lestat on the other hand we were supposed to not like but I actually rather enjoyed his character.  He was shallow, manipulative, and deeply flawed, but there was something about him that grabbed your attention.  Claudia too was a bit of an enigma.  She is a young vampire, and her mind ages while her body doesn't and that makes her situation very unique.  They really were the main characters of the novel, and there were some other much-described characters in this book, but they were only there to support Louis' story.

There is a lot of description in this book.  So much so that it becomes bogged down and boring some times.  There's only so much you can listen to Louis complain before you start feeling melancholy yourself.  And that's really not a good state of mind to have when you're supposed to be reading a book for enjoyment.  But when Louis isn't moaning and groaning the book is rich with detail and the plot-line very interesting.  Rice really did the vampire world a favor compared to the books of late and made them real but relatable at the same time.  You could picture Louis out roaming the streets in real life, the story just seems plausible in that fantasy-like way.  And some of that detail does involve violence, this probably isn't the best choice of a novel for a young child, but I wouldn't hesitate to give it to a mature teenager.  They could probably handle it.

An ok book, the movie will be nearer and dearer to my heart, but it did spark an interest to read the rest of the series.  Now I just have to get my hands on the next book.

Interview with the Vampire
Copyright 1976
342 pages

November 11, 2012

The Longest Race by Ed Ayres

**This book is part of the Amazon Vine program**

I've been trying to turn myself into a runner. I like the idea of running; the fitness, the goal of crossing the finish line, there really isn't anything bad about running. But it's very hard for me to get motivated as my mind tends to wander and I get bored while running. So knowing that this was a book written by an ultra-marathoner, I figured that he would have some good tips in here for helping that, considering he runs for fifty miles straight.

And while this book does have a few tips (located in the back) it's actually more a story about Ayres journey and his thoughts on the world. The book takes place in 2001 and the running of the JFK Ultra-marathon, a fifty mile race through the Appalachia trail and surrounding areas. Ayres is competing at sixty years of age and he breaks down the race into several chapters. Through these chapters there is a different theme at each section being that of thinking of wars past, thinking of the ecological future, how running derives from the activities of primitive man, and so forth. It's actually almost a stream of consciousness type of writing except that it isn't as choppy and random as those seem to be. But it does have that quality of the topic being all over the place. But the main constant is his running and what he does to run the way that he does. He talks about breathing, metabolism, and other things about running that I actually found very helpful.

Since this is Ayres thoughts we are mostly focused on his experiences and him in this book. And that's not a bad thing, you could almost call this an auto-biography of sorts. He may go on about other topics but the undercurrent is that he is running this race as a sixty year old, and that's really impressive. He doesn't go so much into his faults per say, but he does share his mistakes and how he's improved them in running. Like diet while on races, he shares what works and didn't work for him while running these ultra-marathons. You will learn that Ayres is a Quaker and deeply involved with wanting to improve the world's policies on taking care of resources. And if that's not your thing than you might not want to read Ayres book, because he is only telling it from his side.

I really enjoyed the running parts of this book. Sure the other parts were interesting but they distracted me when I just wanted to read about the running. I almost would have liked to have seen two books and I probably would have read both of them. I just found myself hurrying to get past the history lessons and scientific explanations to find out more about Ayres' run, which really intrigued me. Not that the history and science weren't good themselves, they just weren't what I wanted to read while reading about running. But despite that the book is still ok; it's one that I would probably re-read and maybe read at different times with different focuses on the book. Maybe look at only the running sections one day and the science the next. I do know I'll go back to the tips at the back at some point because they seem very useful.

I won't be running any ultra-marathons anytime soon; it's all I can do to finish a 5k in a respectable time. But you never know what the future will bring. My curiosity has been piqued by this book, and that's always a good thing.

The Longest Race
Copyright 2012
232 pages

November 05, 2012

The Dalai Lama's Cat by David Michie

**This review is part of the Amazon Vine program**

I have to say I absolutely adored this book.  It was cute, informative, and really opened by eyes to Buddhism and some of its aspects, even if that wasn't its main intent.  I've been wanting to learn more about Buddhism anyway, and without meaning to, choosing this book to read helped with that.

The Dalai Lama's cat focuses around HHC (His Holiness' Cat)and her journey toward enlightenment while being near the Dalai Lama.  Found as a stray on the street and being a particularly weak one at that, she is nursed back to help by the Dalai Lama himself and his assistants.  As she stays with him and becomes his pet, she watches different people enter his life and seek learning and learns a few lessons herself.  While doing so, she finds peace with her faults and learns to be a better cat.  And really, this description is simplistic of the whole story itself, but I find it hard to describe it without giving away the pleasure of reading that I had myself.

HHC is a pretty funny cat.  She has her flaws but wants to be better, and I think that reflects on many people as well, so you can identify with her even if she is a cat.  She parallels things in her own life with that of the problems of the staff and visitors to the Dalai Lama's home and by endearing herself to us, she also makes it easier to relate to these people as well.  And those other people are interesting in their own right.  Franc, an owner of a cafe nearby is pretty ego-centric but you get to watch him grow through the book.  Other characters may only appear for a chapter, but you learn as well for them, like the cook with anger issues, who had to take a look at why she was angry and what she herself could do to improve it, rather than wanting others to change what they would be doing.  And just as a side note, I do appreciate that some of the Dalai Lama's helpers were named after the fourteenth Dalai Lama, it added some real life relevance.

While this story is about a cat, HHC, it is so much more than that.  I learned more about Buddhist beliefs than from anything else I've ever read (which is admittedly not that much), but it was such an approachable way of learning that I really enjoyed it.  Each point was made with a story and what a person was doing to improve their lives rather than just giving the lessons by rote.  And it made it easier to remember.  I did enjoy the snippets about HHC though and how she too tried to learn.  While being just your ordinary cat that loves food and has an insatiable curiosity, she just had a spark that made her very special and very capable of being the cat of the Dalai Lama.  Indeed, if the Dalai Lama were to possess a cat, I'd imagine it to be very like HHC.  AS you would suspect there is some mention of Buddhism in this book (and I've already mentioned it myself) if you don't enjoy reading about other ways of belief than your own, this is probably not a book you'd enjoy.  But if you're curious about Buddhism and just like a good story, this is probably a good choice.

I definitely found the book an enjoyable read and will probably look at other books by this author.  He has an approachable reading style and a way of imparting knowledge without forcing it down your throat.  I very much liked The Dalai Lama's Cat.

The Dalai Lama's Cat
Copyright 2012
216 pages

November 03, 2012

Taste of Home Baking Book

This review is from the Amazon Vine Program.

**I have made 19 of the recipes in this book**

Alright, I've sat on this book for a year without reviewing it. And why is that? Because I tell myself I have to make a certain number of recipes before I can review a cookbook, and since I'm a single person, I can't make something every day or I wouldn't fit out my apartment door. But that day has finally come and I wanted to make known what a terrific book this is.

You'll notice that this is quite a large book, set up in a binder format so that it can lay flat. There are two plastic covers that come with it, that you can set over a page to protect it from splatter. I'm too lazy to use them, but they seem like a good idea. Next, the inside covers have food equivalents and substitutions tables on them. This is almost my favorite part because it is so handy. Then we get into the actual book itself.

The first tab is baking basics and this is just a short section explaining methods, measuring tools, what kind of bakeware you should have, and the difference between eggs sizes and other such things. For someone who's new to the world of baking (or an expert who may not know a couple of things) this chapter is very useful. But enough about that, on to the food!

The first section is cookies and because cookies are easy to make, this is where I spent most of my time. The Cherry Pecan Dreams were pretty good and the Butter Wafers were easy to make and turned out light and crispy, as they should have been. Next, the Butterscotch Oatmeal Cookies were also delicious. But then there was the Chocolate Chunk Shortbread which was terrible and not very good tasting at all. Luckily, that was one of the only not so good things in this section. Further into the chapter, the Cinnamon Oatmeal Cookies were addicting, and I'm pretty sure that I ate the majority of them myself. The Orange Cinnamon Chocolate Chips Cookies were unique and I shared them at work where they were scarfed down instantly. And despite having made these cookies, there were much much more in this chapter that I haven't yet had the chance to make but am excited to try, like the Walnut Crescents.

The next chapter was Bars & Brownies. This section is a little shorter, but not by much, there are quite a few bars and brownies to be had. The Caramel Pecan Bars were easy to make, but a little overly sweet. But the Triple Nut Diamonds were faintly reminiscent of Pecan Pie and not hard to make despite looking complex. The Toffee Bars were also easy to make and tasted very good. I will say I wish I had made the Tiramisu bars already, they look delicious! It will definitely be on the list to try soon.

Cakes I didn't really get into that much. I'm not much of a cake eater, nor do I enjoy making them. They have about every cake and frosting you could think of listed in this section though, so if you do like cake, I'm sure you'll find something here.

Cupcakes are kind of like cakes, I don't find myself being drawn to make them either. But this was also a very small section compared to the rest so it may have just been that none caught my fancy. There are some Pumpkin Chip Cupcakes that might be good for the holidays though.

Cheesecake I can't stand, I've only ever made it for other people who like it (and I'm beginning to sound like I don't like sweets at all from the last three chapters, I do, really, I'm just picky about sweets). They certainly have some exotic sounding cheesecakes in this chapter though, like the Pina Colada Cheesecake or the Mexican Cheesecake (yes there are some savory ones listed).

The Pies and Tarts section is especially timely for the holidays. The Never Fail Pie Crust is definitely a recipes that someone who always has troubles with crusts (like me) should use. It was easy to make and use and tasted just fine for the pies in this chapter. For Thanksgiving last year, I made the Vermont Maple Oatmeal Pie which was definitely unique and enjoyed by the family and the Ginger Streusel Pumpkin Pie, which was a fancy take on the classic and probably the best loved pie at the holiday. I do have to say that I may make the Black Forest Tart for the holidays this year, it looks sinfully delicious.

The next section's title always makes me laugh because it's titled desserts. I thought that was everything in this book, but apparently not. There are a lot of cream puffs in this section, but I haven't yet made any of them. I have however made the Strawberry Pizza, which was among the favored desserts that I took into the workplace this year. And best of all, it was simple to make. The Banana Brown Betty was also easy to make, but turned out mushy and the taste was only ok. I think Brown Betty's should probably stick to other fruit.

I love Quick Breads. Easy, no time to rise, and usually delicious, they're great to take to potlucks or as a contribution to a group dinner. And there are several in this chapter that were successful. Like the Chocolate Zucchini Bread and the Lemon Bread, which had a light lemon flavor and a somehow dense yet light at the same time texture. The Lemon Blueberry Tea Bread was also nice, and had a cake-like texture to it. The Coconut loaf was a good idea too, but it was a little too dense in texture. I do wish I would have tried some of the savory quick breads in this chapter, but just haven't gotten to it yet. The Amish Onion Cake looks amazing.

Muffins, Biscuits and Scones is the next chapter in this giant of a book. I actually haven't tried anything from this section yet, and I'm not sure why. There's a bunch of different savory and sweet muffins, biscuits and scones in here. And the Pepperoni-Olive ones especially sound like a good snack.

Yeast Breads is a good section too. I actually like the process of kneading dough, it's a great way to get frustrations out. I actually made the Vermont Honey-Wheat bread the other day and it tasted just as a honey wheat should. Although it did take some very pricey ingredients like maple syrup and honey and a good amount at that. Still, it was perfect when toasted and slathered with peanut butter. The Pepper Cheese bread was good too, although a tad crumbly. And there are so much more in here, like the No-Knead Harvest Bread, that I would definitely like to try. There's even recipes for stromboli in this section.

The next section is Coffee Cakes and Sweet Rolls. As I scan this section I'm beginning to realize that I haven't really made it through this book much at all. There's just so much here! From doughnuts to sticky buns, it's a large section.

Almost Homemade I must admit that I largely ignored. I don't like using packaged mixes and that's what the majority of this is. Sure it's convenient, just not my style. In a book filled with so many other good things, this is just a section I'd avoid.

Trimmed Down Favorites is a section for those who want to indulge without killing their waistlines. The Makeover Frosted Banana Bars were really good and easy to make, but alas, I like full fat so they're the only thing I made in this section. They did have some gluten-free in this section as well though.

The last chapter is Holiday Classics and while I consider this all to be Holiday foods, Taste of Home gets specific. Nearly every holiday is represented here, from Christmas to Halloween to Easter. There's even St. Patty's day cupcakes.

And we end the book at the indices, which are general and alphabetical and a lot easier to find certain things than flipping through the book is. There's just so many recipes that it makes it hard to find things otherwise. Especially when you can have up to four per page. But even with that many recipes, there are still pictures of some of them on every page, which is nice. I like to compare what I make to the pictures to see if I did it right.

I really like this book and refer to it often if making something to share at work or at a group meal. Things are simple to make and understand, the instructions easy to work with, and the food more often than not delicious. Also, most of the ingredients are easy to find at your local grocery store. It can be overwhelming at times due to its sheer size and amount of recipes, but I try not to let it intimidate me too much. If you're a big fan of desserts or just like to bake this is probably the book for you. In fact, it might be the only one you need because of everything in it.

Oh, and before I forget to mention it, you also get a free year's subscription to Taste of Home magazine, which was a nice little surprise to come with the book.

Review by M. Reynard 2012

October 29, 2012

Wild Thorn by William Hoffman

Apparently this book is part of a series. But don't let that worry you too much, I didn't realize that until after I read the book, and I don't think it effected the story at all (although who knows what I'd think if I had read the first book). Regardless, it was complete on its own and a decent read.

Charley LeBlanc decides to return back to Virginia to the place of his birth. Along with his girlfriend Blackie, they arrive only to find that a beloved person from his past has been found dead and perhaps murdered. Doing some sleuthing of his own, Charley turns up some inconsistencies in the case, the foremost being that a local wild woman named Esmeralda is the main suspect and the murdered woman her only friend. Knowing some other secrets about Esmeralda, Charley knows that she couldn't have committed the crime. But the more evidence he tries to turn up, the deeper in he gets himself.

Blackie was probably the best character in this book. Even though I didn't particularly like her, she was well written and her character very complete. She felt as if she could be real and had very real emotions. Charley was ok in comparison. Sure he had his shadows in the past as well, but his personality was all over the place. We were told he was a certain way, only to have him do something against that told nature and it didn't make sense sometimes. And even though he was the main character, I never really felt attached to him in any way. All the side characters had a little bit of depth to them, you knew who the good and bad guys were (for the most part) and they all had their little quirks to them. Even though we never actually meet the dead woman, we known enough about her from the stories from other characters and Charley's remembrances that she actually is one of the better characters in the book.

The book started out a little slow at first and I was almost dreading continuing with it. But it did get better and by the end I was glad I had finished it. It may not be the best book I've read in awhile, but it had decently written characters and a unique tone brought on by the dialect of the area. There are some hard themes throughout the book, like murder, rape, violence and of course coarse language. It serves to make the book realistic though and along with the tone of the book, it does seem as if you could be somewhere in Appalachia witnessing everything that has happened. Sure there are some unbelievable aspects (like Esmeralda's story)but even that has some realm of possibility, just a very high odds one. And I was a bit disappointed with the ending, I had expected something quite different than what happened.

I would probably go back and read the first book in this series. And even the third one that there seems to be a setup for. It's just nothing that I will be rushing to get my hands on.

Wild Thorn
Copyright 2002
293 pages

October 28, 2012

Get Up To Speed with Online Marketing by Jon Reed

**This review is part of the Amazon Vine program**

Because of the reviewing I do, I've been targeted at work for working on their online marketing. This means that despite my lack of background in anything marketing, I have to research and come up with ideas for the law firm I work at to better reach a market through social media and other avenues. Obviously despite growing up with technology, this means that I have to learn things I don't already know. So enter this book, which I thought would be a good start.

Get Up To Speed covers a very wide range of topics. Some I already knew, some I didn't really care about, and some I was very interested to learn new things on. From blogging to setting up RSS feeds to twitter, this site covers a lot on how to use popular social media sites. Facebook and LinkedIn are predominant, as is twitter and running your own blog, and youtube even gets some time in this book. There are others, but they are run over rather briefing and don't get the center stage. For all these medias, there are suggestions on how to use it to the best of your ability for your business, in addition to screenshots of some of them, and instructions on how to use some of the different medias in different ways. There are also examples from other businesses on how they used social media to improve themselves.

Reading this at times was very interesting and at other times very boring, like slogging through a dry textbook. I think the problem lay in the detail. While some areas were extensively covered and I learned everything I wanted to, others only had summary descriptions and it left me wondering how to use it properly. For instance, because of how complicated blogs can get with their different pages and other features, I think that chapter could have been widely expanded while Twitter or LinkedIn could have been a little less. I realize that this is probably in the eye of the beholder, but in general I think most businesses would find that more helpful. There is a section on how to get yourself noticed on social media sites, but it was somewhat brief and didn't really clear up anything for me in that regard.

But I did learn a lot of new things. Especially in terms of site analytics. Thanks to this book I found a site to track my own personal blog analytics, which I had wondered about for awhile. There were a lot of links to different trackers like this and other programs that help monitor how sites are doing and their popularity. Which is a boon to business owners who want to see if they are profiting from social media. This book is very educational but for those who aren't as tech savvy, it may be hard to even read this book let alone implement what it suggests. While being a business owner right now means using the internet, a vast majority have only set up a website, if that. And they may not be familiar with the tech speak used in this book, despite it's clear definitions on how to use the different social medias while using that tech speak.

I was disappointed to see that Pinterest wasn't mentioned or Etsy in this book. I don't know that Pinterest was quite at the popularity it is now when this book was in its development, but it was probably around at least. And Etsy has been popular for at least a few years and deserved a mention. It's a very good tool for a lot of small businesses out there. But I guess that that's an inherent flaw in this book. Despite getting out into print fast, like technology itself, it will soon be outdated and not very useful. Media and social media changes every day and a print format while helpful at the moment, will become a door stop after too long.

A comment on the charts and pictures in this book. There were some that I tried to look at that already appeared to be changed a little bit. Social media updates rather quickly so don't walk into this book thinking you'll be able to follow the pictures exactly. Take some time and read the words, those are what stay the same rather than the site layout. That being said, the excerpts in regards to the businesses themselves telling their stories (and not the excerpts involving the charts and pictures) were interesting to read and a good look at how social media actually works for a business.

But for now, if this book is purchased in the next couple of months, maybe a year at the outside limit I think it will be moderately helpful for a small business who wants to get their word out there on social media. I know that I'll be implementing one or two things I found here at work, although a lot of it was extraneous. A good resource for some things, but don't let this book be your only look into online marketing.

Get Up To Speed With Online Marketing
Copyright 2012
248 pages

October 25, 2012

How Angels Die by David Michael Harding

**This book was received as a free advanced reader's copy**

I bounced back and forth between liking this book and not liking it.  There were several elements I appreciated, excitement, adventure, strong female characters.  But I had some difficulties with some of the characters, and with the pace of the book as well.  After mulling it around in my head for a little bit, I came down right in the middle on this book, enjoying it, but not being overly thrilled.

Claire and Monique are two sisters that have come of age during the French resistance against the Germans.  Both work for the Resistance, a small band of rebels intent on making life difficult for the Germans in their city.  But they do it in very different ways.  Monique gets the Intel; which means dancing and charming the German officers in the city and giving them what they want.  Claire however will have none of that, she would rather have a gun in her hands and bullets flashing around her to do her part for the Resistance.  And they clash quite frequently as a result of their different approaches.  But things are changing, the Germans are getting harder to allude and Monique finds herself more than just attracted to her latest mark.  With no end to the war in sight, it's very hard for the sisters to keep doing what they believe in.

I like Monique.  In fact, she was my favorite character.  I thought she had charm, did what she had to do, and was actually quite believable in the way she handled herself.  Her sister Claire on the other hand I just couldn't relate to.  I know some people have an obsession that takes over them, but Claire's hate for all things German was so strong that it was somewhat unbelievable at times.  I even thought her a bit dense when she was supposedly being presented as a brilliant young fighter.  I'm sure we can blame much on youth, but her overall activities and thoughts made me not care for her at all and I really didn't care what happened to her in the book.  Monique's German officer was written quite well at least.  Even though he was supposed to be a bad guy in this book, he was made real and did a good job of showing that in war there are several shades of gray.  The other side characters were ok but we're never really given more than glimpses of them to form attachments.  They're mentioned, and some even have back-stories, but they are very much secondary to the sisters and we aren't given enough to be overly concerned about their fates.

The plot was reasonably good.  I liked the idea of the two sisters each fighting the war in their own way.  And while I found Monique's story more compelling than Claire's, hers definitely served a purpose in the book overall.  I can't comment much on the history because I've never really learned about the French or their resistance during the war, but it didn't go into too much detail on certain events so it seemed plausible to me at least.  I wouldn't read this book for a history lesson, but it does give an overall theme for the time.  The book started out at a great pace, I was drew in wondering what was going to happen with the sisters.  But then, about halfway through the book it suddenly sped up, all sorts of things started happening, and it became a little implausible.  In fact, for a book that was so gritty in detail and believable, the ending is downright sappy.  I thought I had stumbled into a book where another writer had finished the last couple chapters because it was so unlike everything else in the book.  But that's all I'll say on the matter as to not spoil it for someone who wants to read the book.  And when I say the writing is gritty I mean it.  There is violence, murder, rape, cussing and a myriad of other unsavory things in this book so if you are a reader of gentle disposition, you have been warned.  I appreciated it though as war isn't pretty, and this reflected that sentiment.

It was an entertaining read and while I thought there was much that could be improved on in the book, it won't cause me to shy away from any more of Harding's works.  If I see another book out there by him I would pick it up and read it.

How Angels Die
Copyright 2011
410 pages