Thursday, June 28, 2007

Lost Boys of the Jungle Guns

On the way to a talent show for students, Ishmael Beah, his brother and four other friends find themselves separated from their families forever as war breaks out in Sierra Leone. For the next four years Ishmael travels the jungles of his country, carrying an AK-47 and suffering migraines and jangled nerves from the marijuana and cocaine he ingests instead of food. He has become an emotionless killer, a tiny robot soldier with no memory of childhood, A Long Way Gone from the life had known. A UN team negotiates his release, along with a few others, from the guerrilla army he has called "family" and tries to rehabilitate Ishmael. But the violence of he past four years is too ingrained and Ishmael and his comrades fight with other boys who have been "discharged" from their armies. After a painful drug withdrawal process, Ishmael begins to experience all those emotions and activities that kept him tied to his world. But just as Ishmael is about to join a family and begin again to live with people who love him, the war finds Ishmael again and he must take drastic measures to avoid the harsh and violent life he has escaped and seek out a new life in another country. Readers may be shocked at the level of brutal violence present in Ishmael's story. Yet the author tells his harrowing tale unapologetically and simply. Readers who wish to read further on this subject may enjoy God Grew Tired of Us by John Bul Dau and Measuring Time by Helon Habila.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Puzzle Masters

Cancel all weekend plans and lock all the windows. The Game is about to begin. Derek Armstrong's debut takes off with double rocket boosters and launches a new high octane publisher onto the radar.
Former FBI Investigator Alban Bane is at San Quentin to witness the execution of the serial killer he has hunted across many years and states. Even though some parents of victims blame Bane for not acting quickly enough to take down the murderer, Bane is satisfied with the outcome and final result of his quest. Upon his lethal injection deathbed, the killer whispers the clue to a decade old murder which infuriates Bane. At the same time, across the country another series of grisly murders is unfolding on the set of a popular reality television show--all the killings bear the trademarks of the now executed murderer. As Bane delves deeper into these new murders with old memories, he starts to wonder if these are crimes of rebellion and ratings or revenge and humiliation.
There are many subplots and backstory which all come together at the end. The misanthropic Scotsman, Bane, is fascinating and gleefully abhorrent in his misanthropy. Reality television is dangerous business in fiction, as fans of 24/7 by Jim Brown will attest. This first novel is as fast-paced as that one.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Youth and Consequences

After a tragic gun accident in his home, Teddy's life at home and school changes dramatically. He gains a new group of friends, the American Youth, who miscontrue the fatal incident. Teddy struggles to follow his mother's well intentioned orders when discussing the facts with the local police, and carefully observes the changes in former friends following the disastrous event. The book's treatment of a touchy issue that is too frequently handled in a preachy way is respectful and intelligent. There are no conclusions drawn for the readers, the author expects the reader to reach his or her own conclusions. Phil LaMarche's stripped down prose style will encourage teen readers' imaginations to fill in the gaps. Readers of Jodi Picoult's Nineteen Minutes who would like to try a denser literary style should turn to this slim, yet compelling, novel.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Funny like a Crutch

From the moment young Sarah Thyre gives a fake name to a security guard in a shopping mall while he announces her name ove the loudspeaker to the time she sweet talks a dentist into giving her braces her father will pay for, Sarah's attempts at a better life are not just fraught with peril, but humiliation and laughter. Dark at the Roots is her memoir of a life in pursuit of doing better and getting out. None of the incidents are extraordinary, but they are recognizable for their ordinariness and made unique by Sarah's quirky worldview. Follow the formative years of an alum of "Strangers With Candy" and "Upright Citizen's Brigade." Readers who are looking for their next funny, irreverant and witty read after A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel or works by David Sedaris can continue to tickle their funnybone with Thyre.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Where Are They Now?

A blonde woman drives away from the scene of a hit and run accident. When she is stopped by a police officer, she is disoriented and panicked. In a daze, she gives the officer her name and he is startled. The disheveled woman claims to be one of a pair of girls who mysteriously went missing from the area almost thirty years ago in a sensational and unsolved kidnapping. Laura Lippman explores standalone territory again with her latest suspense novel, What the Dead Know.
After providing a false name, the woman continues to be adamant about her true identity. She refuses to help the police confirm her story and is reluctant to share her whereabouts for the many years she was gone. The skeptical detective reaches back into the police force's own past to tap a retired colleague who may have made an error in judgment while working on the case. The only proof the detective can muster is to find the woman's mother, who has also been missing since her daughters' disappearance. Suspenseful with a twist ending that astute readers will see coming long before it arrives.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Vision Question

Mike May isn't stubborn, righteous or a superman. He's just curious. When he is presented with the opportunity to regain the vision he'd lost since he was three, he had to think about how much more different his life would be with vision than without it. Mike had never let a lack of vision keep hi from doing anything he wanted to do, from riding a bike to serving as a school crossing guard, to playing guitar, soccer, tricks on his sister or skiing in the Olympics. Nothing had ever stopped Mike from exploring his world. In Crashing Through, Mike's amazing story told by Robert Kurson, the decision to opt for the surgery to restore his sight wasn't about regaining something lost. It was no different from any other decision he'd ever made about his life. He wanted to try something new and exciting and continue to explore his world in any unique way available to him. Adventures in the sighted world are just as exhilarating as adventures in the blind one, and Mike is making the most of every minute. Mike's determination, resilience and humor will charm readers. His brash, foolhardy, yet fun, experiences are engaging and exuberantly told from an author who takes his omniscience seriously. The scenes describing Mike's first encounters with sight in over 40 years are sheer brilliance.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Leg of Wood, Heart of Steel

Every surgery, every pain and every hurdle involving Emily Rapp's degenerating bone disease is chronicled in a heartfelt and inspiring memoir. The Poster Child lost her foot when she was four and the rest of her leg when she was nine. By the time she was ten, Emily was the Midwestern spokeskid for the March of Dimes project and spoke enthusiastically at church suppers, rodeos and county fairs about how "normal" she was. Emily has always been aware of how she didn't quite meet the standards of normal, but her indefatigable memoir shows readers a person who had no other choice but to be extraordinary since normal wasn't an option. Readers who enjoyed Born on a Blue Day by Daniel Tammet will be pleased with the lack of sentimentality and the brutal honesty of this life story. They will also appreciate Emily's very human emotions of frustration and anger with herself and her prosthesis.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

From the Dough Boys

From a little known piece of American history, Michael Lowenthal has crafted a heartbreaking, yet inspiring story of love betrayed and courage discovered. Frieda is just another working Jewish girl in New York City during World War I. She is a bundle wrapper at Jordan march in ladies' undergarments and very happy with her job and her life. She and her Friend, Lou visit the weekly dances with soldiers and are popular dance partners. One evening Frieda meets a handsome young dough boy and impulsively spends the evening with him. Weeks later she is visited by a stern woman who accuses Frieda of giving the soldier a venereal disease. Frieda is sent to a medical institution where she is quarantined with other "fallen women" who has passed diseases onto soldiers. She is a Charity Girl, accused of unpatriotic behavior and must be rehabilitated before being let out into society again. The fellow inmates and one sympathetic social worker are the only support system Frieda has as she faces numerous indignities in the detention center. Fans of One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus will appreciate the same strong central female character and the straightforward tone. This little known historical period and the brutally unfair treatment of teenage girls will pique interest among readers of American historical fiction. Readers will also rally around Frieda and her feisty, but not anachronistic, attitude toward the medical sciences and her own future. Very readable and entertaining. Characters are like able and believable; plot is swift; enough historic detail to create a strong sense of time, place and social tone, but not too much to slow down the story. A satisfactory ending should please all readers.

Monday, June 11, 2007

College Follies

I never did get the concept of the college visit. Why spend a weekend in the spring at a campus that won't bare any resemble to the place you matriculate three months later in the fall? To my thinking, it was enough I wasted a perfectly good Saturday morning taking the SATs and the ACT. Susan Coll might be of the same mind. In Acceptance, three overachieving high school students are applying for college--AP Harry (taker of more Advanced Placement courses than anyone in the senior class) is only interested in Ivy League school and only Harvard at that; Taylor wants her social climbing and overly competitive mother to leave her alone while Taylor pilfers mail from her surrounding neighbors; Maya wishes she could live up to the mile-high standards her family has created and wonders why no one has yet realized she isn't as smart as the rest of her siblings. During the school year, each student will face frustration, disappointment and new insights into themselves as they plot a future they think they want and all inadvertently choose the future they truly need. Teens will appreciate the subject matter of this novel as they go through their own college application processes. They will also identify (some of them) with the stress of selecting a college and the fierce competition that goes into getting into the "best" colleges. They may also find the portion of the story told from the viewpoint of the college admissions counselor eye-opening as she reveals what colleges truly look for in an essay. A fun, breezy read with intriguing insights into the college admissions gauntlet.
This book was discussed on The Walt Bodine Show 's Book Doctors program May 17, 2007. KCUR 89.3

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Welcome to the Condemned Monkey House

Books about animals make me wary. I won't watch/read/listen to anything in which an animal suffers unnecessarily. I'm not fond of those stories where it's necessary, either. Although I recall not minding much when Cujo bit the dust.
I approached Babylon's Ark: The Incredible Wartime Rescue of the Baghdad Zoo with much trepidation. I knew I'd be reading about horrific wartime conditions of the exotic animals trapped in the zoo in the midst of shelling, bombs and looting. I also knew there would be plenty of moments of redemption and salvation. There are equal parts of both in Lawrence Anthony's memoir of his harrowing journey to war-torn Baghdad in order to save and protect the world renowned zoo. Anthony discovers his own survival is in jeopardy as well as that of the animals he attempts to save. With help from steadfast American soldiers and loyal, ingenious Iraqi zookeepers, Anthony begins to create a livable habitat for the animals left behind when the city was evacuated. Each day is fraught with new and life-threatening challenges that Anthony meets with righteous indignation and canny problem-solving skills. Heartfelt, but never treacly, readers who are animal lovers will shed tears; readers who are not will find their souls stirred with the injustice doled out to defenseless creatures. Readers who enjoyed other unusual humanitarian missions such as those recounted in Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time by Greg Mortenson or Pride of Baghdad by Brian K. Vaughn, will be intrigued by the animals' stories.

Saturday, June 9, 2007


Matthew Polly had always kept a running list in his head of Things That Are Wrong with Matthew: “Cowardly,” “Spiritually Confused,” “Still a boy/not a man,” “Ignorant.” In 1992, he decided to tackle the list by going to China to train in ancient martial arts and meditation with the monks of the hidden Shaolin Temple. Ten years later, Polly weaves the story of his journey to enlightenment with iron forearms in American Shaolin. With a better than average command of the Chinese language and customs for a laowai, Polly makes his way to the Temple and starts to catalog his unusual adventures and encounters with the Chinese people—chatty cab drivers; giggly hotel key girls; avaricious Temple officials; and coaches who scream for perfection and then . It all culminates in an international kungfu competition and a challenge match with a kungfu master. Polly’s pace is as fast as a whip kick to the head and his descriptions of the amazing skills of his teachers and class mates are jaw dropping. In a friendly, deferential and sometimes smart ass tone, Polly invites the reader along on his astounding journey to check off the items on his list, only to check off the most important entry upon his return to Kansas. Fans of the pacing and story line of Friday Night Lights will enjoy American Shaolin.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Man behind the Vision

This one goes out to Bruce who let me wax pathetic over a Renoir and a Degas at the Nelson-Atkins Gallery tonight.
Susan Vreeland has made a splash with her historical fiction novels revolving around masterpieces of the art world. She and Tracy Chevalier have almost created a cottage industry. The latest entry in the "story behind the painting" subgenre of literary historical fiction is Luncheon of the Boating Party. In prose as thoughtful as every one of Renoir's brush strokes, Vreeland imagines the lives behind each figure in the artist's most famous work. From conception to completion, readers learn who all the models are, how they came together, their significance to Renoir and how they form a tight bond that cannot last outside the painting's frame. Full of exquisite detail and descriptions, readers will be flipping back to carefully study the small replica of the painting that accompanies the book. Up until the last third, readers will wonder who is the beguiling woman holding the dog in the lower left corner of the painting? All of the painting's figures are real people the author brings to life on the canvas, even the mysterious quatorzieme is identified. Very suitable for a book group or readers who enjoyed Girl with a Pearl Earring.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Lies We Tell to Make Ourselves Feel Better

In James Scudamore's novel, Anti and Fabian are unlikely friends in Quito, Ecuador who share a love for outlandish yarn-spinning and yearn to "discover" something remarkable. While they will talk about everything, one subject goes unmentioned, the deaths of Fabian's parents. One night, after too much tequila, Fabian tells the story of his parents' demise. Anti, sympathetic, yet disbelieving, crafts a false newspaper story to demonstrate his support for Fabian and the fictions that help him get through this tragedy. However, Fabian reads the clipping and also notes the bogus story next to it, one for an Amnesia Clinic serving victims of accidents or kidnappings with no memories of who they are. Fabian is certain his mother, whose body was never recovered, is staying in the Amnesia Clinic. The boys set off on a journey that will reveal more about their friendship and future than either can imagine. The compelling story, natural and likeable characters and realistic portrayals of adults are the highlights of this novel. Scudamore has captured well the sense of wonder and familiarity the boys experience with their shared world and each other. Readers have compared this book to Life of Pi by Yann Martel.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Capturing Light or Capturing Sin?

One of the most lyrical debuts of 2005 was Miranda Beverly-Whittemore's The Effects of Light. The realistic and sympathetic characters and the compelling, suspenseful story line will draw readers in while they ponder the author's thoughtful exploration of the classic social question, "What is Art and who gets to decide?"
Thirteen years after she fled the West Coast, Kate Scott is returning to hesitantly pry open painful memories of her sister and her father. A mysterious package from an unknown benefactor shows Kate that someone else knows her turbulent secret history as a child-model for a controversial photographer. Her lover, Samuel, follows Kate and pledges to help her unearth the clues her father has left behind, but when Kate discovers Scott's notebook with surreptitious jottings about herself and her family's notorious past, she rejects him. Readers will be drawn into the mystery surrounding Kate's sister, her father, and Ruth, the photographer, even wondering who Kate truly is. This first novel drew parallels with The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold for the narrative voices of its teen characters, Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier for its art-world frame and Possession by A.S. Byatt for its plot of academics searching ancient documents for contemporary truths.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

High School Heartbeat

Jodi Picoult is another of my favorite authors. Her stories intrigue me. She explores the very real emotions behind the hot button issues that confound our society and there are rarely any winners, losers, heros or villains. There are only real people, with a steadfast sense of self, values and what is right. By the end of most of her novels, the reader cannot choose a side and Picoult doesn't want the reader to take sides. She wants her readers to think and discuss and consider the other person's position.
Nineteen Minutes, Picoult's most recent novel, has an obvious villain who commits an unforgiveable crime, however, it will be a hard-hearted reader who doesn't sympathize a little with this character by the end of the story.
Pete Houghton has just walked into his high school and killed ten clasmates with a handgun and injured nineteen others. One survivor, Josie, was the only person to face down Peter and walk away. But why? Why did Peter shoot the students? Why did Josie live? This is a harrowing tale about the secret lives of high school students and how they can't trust the adults in their lives--even the those adults who love them the most and have sworn to protect them.
Readers who enjoyed Chris Bohjalian's Before You Know Kindness or Cafe of Stars by Jacquelyn Mitchard may also enjoy this novel.

Monday, June 4, 2007


I couldn't wait to share I Love You, Beth Cooper. I laughed everywhere I read this book. On the bus, at home, in the coffee shop, at my desk when I should have been working. Larry Doyle has captured perfectly what it is like to be a brilliant 98 lb weakling among boneheaded 175 lb defensive ends.
The alternate title to this book could be "One Life-Changing Night in the Life of Denis Cooverman." It all starts at graduation. Debate geek/brainiac valedictorian Denis finally says everything he's pent up for four years--he accuses classmates of anorexia, snobbishness, meaningless violence due to low self-esteem and outs his best friend, Rich. Denis saves the best for first and professes his love for Beth Cooper from his academic pulpit. This admission sets in motion the most memorable night in Denis' short life. The girl of his dreams drops in at his house for an impromptu graduation party and then, along with her two best friends, takes Denis and Rich on a wild ride through every teenage degradation, delight and debauchery ever depicted on the silver screen. The humor is spot on and quotes from characters in classic teen movies open every chapter. Fans of Frank Portman's King Dork, last year's hot adult book for teens will enjoy this latest comic effort. Less flip than King Dork and a little less believable, I Love You, Beth Cooper is laugh out loud funny and realistic in its growth of Denis from fearful wimp to fed up hero. Of a sort.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Playing Our Songs

Rock journalist Rob Sheffield was completely happy with his life as an up and coming writer for Rolling Stone and his wife, a witty, punky, Appalachian girl, Renee. On Mother’s Day, after only six years of married life, Renee stood up from her sewing machine and suffered a fatal aneurysm. Love Is A Mix Tape is Rob’s heartfelt story of his life before, during and after Renee, told through the music and mix tapes the two of them made for each other and listened to with joy and appreciation for each other's tastes. The author uses music to trigger overlooked details and emotional background for the important events in his life. Full of pop culture, musical references and witty repartee between author and reader. Teens will appreciate Rob’s great affection for his wife and music of all genres. But after the author's tone, the writing isn't really compelling enough to support the story. Less a memoir and more a personal writing exercise in grief counseling from one of the commentators on VH1's Best Week Ever.

Saturday, June 2, 2007


The third time was NOT the charm for Jay and Dan in Four Days to Glory: Wrestling with the Soul of the American Heartland by Mark Kreidler. Both of them are three-time Iowa State Champions in wrestling and while this is no small feat, it is not enough to raise either boy from the ranks of the "merely good" to "excellent." For that distinction they will need to become "four timers" and join an elite group of Iowa wrestlers who achieve mortality on a social and athletic par with that of Olympian gods. In addition to struggling with the pressure to exceed in the ring and the classroom, both student athletes face added pressures. Jay is an exceptional wrestler who feeds off his criticism from Internet fans and local sports journalists. Dan is a legacy--his own father was a wrestling champion. Dan's brother, Chris, is entering the sport in Dan's shadow but without Dan's talent. Jay is virtually ignored in his school and town for his prowess and Dan is pointed out as his rural town's one chance for notice on a regional scale. The author does an adequate job of bringing both boys, their families, friends, school mates and other community figures to life, but rarely, and without much interest, examines their lives in other arenas besides the gym. Otherwise the writing is very accessible and flows easily. The suspense is marginal for a story told with a straight reportage tone rather than a breathless narrative one. Not as memorable as Friday Night Lights by H.G. Bissinger, but fans of that book will find something to like in this one.

Friday, June 1, 2007

La Bruja Buena de Agua Mansa

A lyrical first novel reminiscent of Alice Hoffman's Practical Magic, Still Water Saints is a great first effort from Alex Espinoza. In the small border town of Agua Mansa, Perla runs her botanica full of herbs, remedies, saint cards, charms and candles. The townspeople come to her for healing--hearts, heads, spirits, bodies. Along with the special potions and incenses and tributes to various saints, Perla provides hope and encouragement to her visitors. When a frightened and homeless boy, Rodrigo, comes to Perla for English lessons, she writes out the story of her life for him. His disappearance challenges Perla to examine her own doubts and losses in her life even as she seeks to heal Rodrigo's physical and emotional wounds. Fans of Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel or Gonzalez & Daughter Trucking Co. by Maria Ampara Escandon will be equally charmed by these hopeful characters. Don't expect a tidy resolution. Life hasn't ever delivered one of these in reality and Espinoza's fiction depicts life, not fantasy.
This book was discussed on The Walt Bodine Show 's Book Doctors program May 17, 2007. KCUR 89.3