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Higher Powers

Higher Powers

posted by:
April 4, 2013 - 8:01am

The Vatican DiariesTiming could not have been better for John Thavis's entertaining and candid new book, The Vatican Diaries: a Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Power, Personalities, and Politics at the Heart of the Catholic Church. While the long-time journalist stirs in lighter, less sacrosanct moments about life in and out of the Apostolic Palace, there is serious discussion of many aspects of this Vatican City-State visited by millions each year. 

 

Nearly three decades of experience covering the Holy See for Catholic News Service has provided the recently retired Rome Bureau Chief with a heap of material on the men in red. In ten highly readable chapters, Thavis traverses more territory in “arguably the world’s most hierarchical organization” than on his motorino throughout this ancient city. Intriguing chapter headings, like “Hemlines and Banana Peels” and “Cat and Mouse,” provide a fascinating peek at the culture behind the headlines.  In a chapter called simply “Bones,” Thavis highlights the difficulty of protecting and conserving the plethora of antiquities that come out of the ground while moving forward with modern development as mundane as a parking garage. Thavis calls it the “politics of the bones.”

 

No subjects are off limits either, as the Minnesota native seems to have witnessed it all firsthand.  He takes on the sexual abuse scandals and other controversies swirling around papal decisions, including provocative observations on the last two popes.  Lighter subjects, too, are explored, including free-speaking priests who get into trouble and the mindset of Vatican protocol where things shouldn't go wrong but often do. Even bell ringing has its own challenges. There is chapter on it. Thavis dispels the myth of "Vatican secrecy" in his introduction. "More than 3,000 people work in the Vatican's administrative machine, and many of them will share information if given the opportunity," he says. It is fortunate for readers that Thavis has opened up his reporter's notebooks.

Cynthia

 
 

Hilarious and Hip: An Immigrant Story

Fresh Off the BoatEddie Huang is co-owner of the hugely successful Baohaus, a Taiwanese bun shop in New York’s East Village. Fresh off the Boat, his provocative new memoir, is a refreshingly current take on the immigrant story and a very funny book. Huang recounts his upbringing in Orlando, Florida. He attended a mostly white school, struggling to stay true to his Taiwanese culture, while also wanting to fit in. For his school lunch, his mother usually prepared a home-cooked Taiwanese meal. He didn’t want food that smelled or looked any different from that of his peers. He talked his mom into allowing him to take the processed pre-packed meals and juice boxes.

 

He describes going into wealthy white homes where the kids had so many toys, he didn’t know what to play with first. He does not shy away from his tough upbringing but maintains a light, irreverent tone, no matter the subject.  In time, he came to embrace his own culture. He is proud of his Asian-American background but refuses to be anything but himself. He criticizes Hollywood’s emasculated version of Asian-American men, loves partying, hip-hop, basketball and football.

 

Throughout Huang’s life, his love of food remains constant and his passion for food culture is infectious. Equally infectious is Huang’s humor, perhaps best captured in the audiobook version. Huang is the narrator and his hip, street-smart humor comes off best in his distinct Brooklyn accent. Besides audiobook listeners, Fresh Off the Boat will also find fans among memoir readers, pop-culture enthusiasts and foodies.

Zeke

 
 

Lissy and Jenny's High School Reunions

Lissy and Jenny's High School Reunions

posted by:
April 1, 2013 - 7:01am

Here I Go AgainWhy Can't I Be YouMany of us wish that we could have a “do-over” in our lives. That’s exactly the opportunity that the heroines of these two new novels receive with interesting results. Jen Lancaster’s Here I Go Again is a hilarious trip back to the future. In high school, Lissy Ryder was the ultimate mean girl. Now, she is returning to her 20th reunion under less than desirable circumstances. Over the past few months, her husband left her, and she lost her job. Unemployment, combined with astronomical credit card debt required to keep up her lifestyle, has resulted in Lissy being forced to move back home with her parents. She goes to the reunion, and the way she treated people in high school comes back to haunt her. When she gets a chance to go back to 1991 and change her life, Lissy tries to make things right, but she finds that her actions have unexpected results in the present. Fans of Lancaster’s memoirs will recognize her fast-paced, chatty writing style and ubiquitous pop culture references.

 

In Allie Larkin’s Why Can’t I Be You, heroine Jenny Shaw’s life is a mess. Although her boyfriend dumps her at the airport and runs away with her luggage in the trunk of his car, she still gets on a plane for a business trip to Seattle. At her hotel, someone calls her Jessie from across the lobby. On a whim, Jenny answers. Soon she finds herself pretending to be Jessie Morgan, a long-lost classmate in town for her high school reunion. As she gets to know Jessie’s high school friends, Jenny sees the kind of friendship she longs for in her own life. Pretending to be the free-spirited, wild child Jessie, Jenny is able to open up and try things she never would have as herself. Eventually, Jenny realizes that when she’s being Jessie, she’s more true to herself than ever. Why Can’t I Be You is a story of finding yourself in the last place you would have expected. Larkin is an exciting new voice in chick lit, bringing readers strong characters and stories with real heart.

Beth

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To Catch a Thief

To Catch a Thief

posted by:
March 29, 2013 - 7:01am

The Bughouse AffairTravel to San Francisco, 1894 to meet a pair of delightful detectives in The Bughouse Affair by Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini. This first in a new historical mystery series by two Grand Master Award winners (who just happen to be married), introduces partners Sabina Carpenter and John Quincannon. Sabina is a former Pinkerton operative and John honed his skills in the Secret Service. The two combined forces to establish a successful agency in the quickly developing city of San Francisco. Sabina is widowed and dedicated to her job, and John is a bachelor hoping for a more personal relationship with his lovely partner.

 

The two are working on separate cases while also following press reports of the resurrection of Sherlock Holmes, who has miraculously returned to life and picked San Francisco as his new base of operations. Sabina’s case involves the hunt for a slippery lady pickpocket who finds her marks at a large amusement park and other crowded venues. Quincannon is on the trail of a burglar who is targeting the homes of wealthy residents. He finds himself traveling to seedy bars and parlors in the disreputable Barbary Coast while tracking his elusive thief. Eventually, the two realize their cases are connected and the criminals have stepped up their game to include murder. The detecting duo find themselves working feverishly to capture these lawbreakers before additional crimes can be committed, all while dealing with the Sherlock Holmes pretender who has become a surprising rival.

 

Muller and Pronzini have both entertained readers with their memorable characters Sharon McCone and The Nameless Detective respectively. With this series, this talented couple offers two intrepid detectives in an intriguing historical setting. Readers will be anxious to follow the next case these two embark upon and curious about whether the romantic sparks will continue to fly.   

Maureen

 
 

In the Wave's Wake

In the Wave's Wake

posted by:
March 28, 2013 - 7:03am

Facing the WaveCars on top of boats on top of roofs. Mountains of debris in flattened urban landscapes. Sea-salty inland lakes miles away from the Pacific coastline. These were all fairly common scenes after the March 11, 2011 earthquake off of the northern coast of Japan caused a series of massive tsunami waves that decimated the eastern coast of the Tohoku region. Only months after the disaster first struck, Gretel Ehrlich, an American travel writer, came to personally view, experience, and record the wreckage and the perseverance of the people and places impacted most by the quake and tsunami. Facing the Wave: A Journey in the Wake of the Tsunami is the insightful, poetic, personal chronicle of her expedition.

 

After she arrives, Ehrlich makes her way slowly up and down the devastated coastline, stopping by villages, cities, temples, and emergency shelters along the way. She comes to see the depth and variety of responses to the catastrophe in the people she meets and those she travels with, especially her drivers and translators, and their families. Through her conversations, the reader gradually realizes how profoundly Japan’s long acquaintance with the tsunami as a natural phenomenon has permeated its culture and worldview. Impermance, uncertainty, and acceptance of what cannot change are rooted in the Japanese character that Ehrlich’s portrayal reveals. Still, moments of happiness and joy punch through the sorrow and anxiety that the author and those she meets experience. 

 

Wrenching, inspiring, and compelling, Facing the Wave is an emotional reminder that even though we may no longer see it mentioned on the nightly news, the aftermath of a disaster of this scale lingers for those who lived through it and those who care enough to remember.

 

Rachael

 
 

The Thorn in Your Side

With or Without YouJoan Crawford, move over. Kathi Ruta is here, and her daughter, Domenica “Nikki” Ruta, has penned a memoir every bit as disturbing as Christina Crawford’s. In With or Without You, Ruta recounts a childhood devoid of innocence, as she is both witness to and victim of numerous crimes. Nikki is the only child of single mother Kathi.They live on the Ruta family compound in Massachusetts. Unlike another family compound in wealthy Hyannisport, the clannish Rutas reside on marshland in blue-collar Danvers in dilapidated housing. Kathi is a manicurist, at one point a prosperous car service owner, but most regularly a drug dealer who liberally indulges in her merchandise.

 

Ruta shares horrifying tales of growing up with Kathi. The squalid living conditions are punctuated by a revolving series of drug-buying customers who serve as surrogate family; one “uncle” is a known pedophile. Kathi promotes drug use, providing Nikki with her first Oxycontin and stuffing her Christmas stocking with a nickel bag. She keeps Nikki home from school to watch classic movies on TV (ironically, a favorite was Mommie Dearest) and harangues her daughter with language that could blister paint off the walls. Yet Kathi knows her intelligent, book-loving daughter deserves more and cobbles together a private school education which includes boarding school and college, partly funded by drug money. During an especially flush period, they travel to Europe.

 

Dysfunctional parent-child relationships are complicated.  Ruta conveys her mother not as one-dimensional, but larger than life and complex; intensely loving and capable of pushing her daughter to succeed conventionally while simultaneously sabotaging her efforts. With her mother’s demons dogging her along the way, Ruta struggles to launch her own adulthood while deciding what role her mother can continue to play in her life.  Recent memoirs in this same vein include Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle and The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok.

Lori

 
 

Hold On

Hold On

posted by:
March 25, 2013 - 8:05am

Dear LifeAlice Munro is often described as “one of the best living writers of short stories in the English language”. While that may be said to avoid too many comparisons as to who is truly the best, the qualifiers are really not necessary. This is proven with her latest collection, Dear Life. In interviews, Munro states that a few of this set of stories are her most autobiographical.

 

One of the most striking aspects of Munro’s stories is the misdirection she frequently provides. Just as the reader is settling in on what is believed to be the main character or main idea of a story, a tangent takes one off into a myriad of different directions. Often taking place in the area Munro knows best, rural Ontario near Lake Huron, these are mostly slice-of-life stories about regular people. In “Haven”, for example, a young girl goes to live with her aunt and uncle, two very different people from her missionary parents. Her eyes are opened to another way of life, and her childhood ends. Another story, “Pride”, describes two small-town misfits who eventually forge an uneasy friendship. The male protagonist explains his female acquaintance as having a “strange hesitation and lightness about her, as if she were waiting for life to begin. She went away on trips of course, and maybe she thought it would begin there. No such luck.”

 

The author tucks those sorts of breathtaking lines throughout the fourteen stories. Travel, especially by train, takes on a large role, likely a metaphor for our lifelong journeys. The final, titular story, certainly one of the most autobiographical, has many interwoven themes. But above all, the wordplay of Munro’s own dear life, while she has witnessed so many holding on for dear life, leaves readers in awe of her writing powers.

 

Todd

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One Tough Broad

One Tough Broad

posted by:
March 25, 2013 - 7:45am

Rage Against the DyingIn Becky Masterman’s chilling debut thriller Rage Against the Dying, heroine Brigid Quinn spent her FBI career hunting the worst sexual predators. She is tough and self-reliant. After Brigid was forced to take early retirement from the FBI, she left that world behind entirely. Now, she now lives a quiet life with her new husband Carlo and their two pugs. Former priest Carlo knows little about that life or the person Brigid was before they met. Everything changes when Brigid’s past comes crashing into her present. A man named Floyd Lynch is arrested, and he confesses to being the Route 66 Killer. That case was one of the worst of Brigid’s career, resulting in the disappearance of her protégé Jessica. Lynch knows some key details that were never publicized, and he leads authorities to Jessica’s mummified remains. However, Brigid has reason to believe that his confession is false. Soon, Brigid realizes that she is being stalked, and she must find the killer to save herself.

 

Rage Against the Dying, which Masterman originally titled One Tough Broad, brings an exciting new character to the thriller world. Masterman says that her debut novel is “in some respects like a coming-of-age novel for an older woman.” Although 59-year-old Brigid is very confident in her strength and abilities, she is still learning about being a wife and friend. Masterman, whose previous career was in forensic textbook publishing, brings a level of realism to the brutal crimes that Brigid has seen. Rage Against the Dying is the kind of thriller that keeps readers up late at night and might make them sleep with the lights on.  

 

Beth

 
 

Chinua Achebe, 1930-2013

Things Fall ApartThere Was a CountryHow the Leopard Got His ClawsThe renowned author of African literature, Chinua Achebe, has died in Boston at the age of 82. He is best-known for his seminal 1958 novel Things Fall Apart, read by millions worldwide, and featured in the curriculum and reading lists of countless high schools and universities. This novel follows the life of Okonkwo, a proud Igbo man living in turn of the 19th century Nigeria, and the cultural changes that he must face and accept as British colonialism takes hold of the area and the only life he knows. Achebe also wrote a number of follow-up novels to this groundbreaking story. Confined to a wheelchair for the past twenty years following a car accident, he lived in the United States for the last two decades of his life, and was a professor of African Studies at Brown University in Providence.

 

Achebe also was a strong proponent of the rights of the people living in the once-breakaway Nigerian state of Biafra. His book There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra was published last year. Explaining the Nigerian civil war that took place in the late 1960s, this mélange of memoir and history reminded the world of an oft-forgotten war. Achebe also wrote an allegorical folktale which was republished last year with Mary GrandPré's illustrations. How the Leopard Got His Claws tells the story of a short-lived coup and the resulting return of the original power players, in terms that are understandable for all ages.

Todd

 
 

Going off the Grid

Going off the Grid

posted by:
March 22, 2013 - 7:45am

GhostmanIn his first novel, Ghostman, Roger Hobbs creates an exciting world of double dealing, casino heists, crime bosses and an intriguing main character caught in the middle. The Ghostman goes by many aliases and stays separate from the rest of the world. He is careful not to live in one location for very long, has no close associates, and doesn’t maintain a phone line or a personal email. He refuses to use his real name, but when a message comes to him for the persona Jack Delton, he knows that someone is contacting him to collect a debt. Years ago, the Ghostman made a fatal error during a heist in Kuala Lumpur, and Marcus, the mastermind of the heist, was sent to prison. Now Marcus has discovered a way to contact the Ghostman and he demands to be repaid with a very dangerous proposition involving stolen money from an Atlantic City casino. The money was newly printed by the Federal Reserve and contained a dye pack that will explode within the next two days. Marcus needs to find the thief and the cash, and contacts Ghostman with the general schematics of the plan. But plans with criminals can easily go awry, and soon our hapless anti-hero attracts the attention of a crime boss known at the Wolf as well as a rather tenacious FBI agent.  It will take a great deal of nerve and every trick at his disposal in order to come out alive.

 

The story is fast-paced and exciting. It unfolds in present day Atlantic City with the current plan of action, but interspersed are chapters told in flashback and the reader learns the history behind Ghostman’s debt to Marcus. Ghostman is a fantastic thriller that looks into the heart of the criminal world and examines what it takes to survive in such a hostile environment. Roger Hobbs is a new writer to watch, and is sure to please fans of nail-biting suspense.

Doug

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