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Pastoral Peccadilloes and Goblin Goings-on – ‘Snuff Said

SnuffFollowers of the sometimes fantastical, always immensely funny Discworld series can breathe a sigh of relief. The remarkable storyteller Terry Pratchett has released another compulsively readable adventure. In Snuff, the reader once again joins Commander Sam Vimes, the streetwise Commander of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch and reluctant member of society’s highest echelons. The powers that be (namely his wife, the Lady Sybil) have decreed that Vimes is in dire need of a proper pastoral vacation. Resigned to his fate, Vimes bids farewell to his beat and arrives at the ancestral home and environs with his wife and young son. He sets his mind to relaxing but a copper is never really off-duty, and when the severed hand of a goblin turns up, it isn’t long before Vimes finds himself called upon to unravel a mysterious death and restore justice to the most unlikely of citizens.

 

Pratchett’s characteristic humor and sense of timing are in fine form in this latest Discworld adventure, and those who are familiar with the characters the author has honed over the years will not be disappointed. For those new to Pratchett though, a caveat: Snuff is a uniquely Vimes-centric story and as such is not an ideal first foray into the Discworld. Recommended prior reading includes Guards! Guards! and Night Watch

 

Whether a seasoned sci-fi/fantasy enthusiast or a hesitant newcomer ready to dip one’s toe into the genre, the works of Terry Pratchett are equally accessible and more than a little addictive. Granted there are certain fantastical elements (The City Watch counts among its employees various trolls, vampires and dwarves; Death is really a loveable fellow once you get to know him - he has a soft spot for kittens - and oh yes, the entire world is one large disc supported by four elephants that are in turn balanced on the back of a great turtle. You get the idea.) Yet at the heart of what Pratchett really writes are wildly humorous, acutely insightful commentaries on the nature of humans and the societies they cobble together.

Meghan

 
 

Susan Lucci of the RITAs?

Susan Lucci of the RITAs?

posted by:
May 4, 2012 - 1:01am

When Beauty Tamed the BeastThe Romance Writers of America recently announced the finalists for the 2012 RITA awards.  The RITAs honor authors for excellence in romance writing.  This year more than 1,200 novels and novellas were judged and finalists were announced in 12 categories. When popular author Eloisa James heard that her novel When Beauty Tamed the Beast is a finalist, she tweeted about her RITA losing streak. “The RITA is the Romance Writers of America's highest award... and I just got a call telling me that When Beauty Tamed the Beast is a finalist! I'm so happy. Mind you, I am the Susan Lucci of the RITA contest; I'm in the double digits for finalists (almost every book I've written) and I've never won. Maybe I'll be lucky this time!”  Like soap opera actress Susan Lucci’s famous streak of 18 Emmy nominations without a win, James still hasn’t won the coveted award.  Will this be the year for Eloisa James?

 

When Beauty Tamed the Beast is the second book in the Eloisa’s Fairy Tales series.  Miss Linnet Thrynne finds herself rejected by a prince with whom she has had a harmless flirtation, but her troubles really begin when a rumor starts to circulate that she’s pregnant with the prince’s child.  She needs a husband ASAP!  She is taken to meet Piers Yelverton, Earl of Marchant, a brilliant doctor known for his foul temper (think Dr. Greg House from the Fox TV series House, M.D.) whose father wants him to be married.  Linnet is sure that her charm will bring Piers to his knees within a week or two, but Piers has other plans.  A funny, witty battle ensues where both characters win.

The 2012 RITA award winners will be announced on July 28 at the Romance Writers of America annual conference.  Check out the full list of finalists at http://www.rwa.org/cs/2012_rita_and_gh_finalists#top

Beth

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Oh What a Tangled Web

Truth and ConsequencesThe Wizard of LiesHe really did deceive the entire world.  In a moment’s time, thousands of organizations and individuals worldwide lost their financial savings when Bernie Madoff’s massive investment fraud was uncovered.  The widespread public outrage was directed not only at him but also his family.  Surely those closest to him knew everything and were reaping all the benefits, right?  Two recent books tell otherwise. 

 

The first, Truth and Consequences: Life Inside the Madoff Family, by Laurie Sandell, chronicles the lives of his wife Ruth and sons Mark and Andrew both before and after the 2008 revelation that brought the financial empire crashing down.  Ruth, who was married to Madoff from the age of 18, had all property seized.  Mark committed suicide two years to the day of his father’s arrest.  Andrew struggled to rebuild his own reputation in the business community.  The writing at times entertains frivolous details and inconsequential family spats but provides an honest look into a tightly controlled family whose trusted patriarch was their ultimate undoing. 

 

While Truth and Consequences focuses more on family dynamics and less on the actual logistics of Madoff’s crime, The Wizard of Lies: Bernie Madoff and the Death of Trust by Diana B. Henriques gives a detailed recounting of the Ponzi  scheme itself.  Henriques, a financial writer for the New York Times and one of the few to interview Madoff in prison, follows a substantial “cast of characters” including family members, accountants, federal  investigators and lawyers to examine how a respected businessman could carry out deception on such a grand scale.  If her earlier narrative seems dry and overwhelming in places, the latter half of the book provides plenty of courtroom drama and emotional testimony to keep readers engaged.  As both authors note, family members and outsiders alike had their lives upended by the “Wizard of Lies”, and the rebuilding for many has just begun. 

Melanie

 
 

The Mark Cuban of China

Brave DragonsFormer New York Times Beijing bureau chief and Pulitzer Prize winner Jim Yardley uses basketball as a vehicle to illuminate the global story of the Americanization of China.  In Brave Dragons: A Chinese Basketball Team, an American Coach, and Two Cultures Clashing, Yardley follows the Shanxi Brave Dragons for the 2008 season.  He is initially drawn to the team because of the fish-out-of-water hiring of Bob Weiss, a former NBA coach and player.  But the players, officials, and owner also draw him in and all have strong roles in this excellent narrative. 

 

The Shanxi Brave Dragons were and remain one of China’s worst professional teams and owner Wang Xingjiang (“Boss Wang”), a peasant turned steel tycoon, was desperate for improvement.  He promised Weiss autonomy with the players to infuse the NBA way into this team.  Once Weiss landed in China, Wang went back on that promise and refused the players any freedom or individual expression, necessary to truly change their games.  Wang, referred to as the Mark Cuban of China, interfered in nearly every aspect of the game, including sitting on the team bench with his mistress, criticizing performances, and in one case physically assaulting one of his players.

 

This is a fascinating history of basketball in China told with humor and a strong sense of the culture clash between these two countries and people.  Readers meet the players, some from around the world, but most from China. These athletes were recruited in elementary school because x-rays of their skeletal structure led to projections of tallness.   Training and practice took place in a depressing warehouse in Taiyuan, once ranked as the most polluted city in the world.  Coach Weiss had to use an interpreter to communicate with the players and with his assistant Chinese coach, Liu Tie, with whom he faced a constant power struggle.  In addition, there was rampant corruption among game officials and a multitude of cultural obstacles.  All of these elements combined with excellent research and a clear writing style add up to an engaging narrative that will appeal to sports fans and readers who enjoy well-written contemporary nonfiction. 

Maureen

 
 

Kitchen Focus

Kitchen Focus

posted by:
May 3, 2012 - 1:11am

My Family TableIn My Family Table, A Passionate Plea for Home Cooking, famed New Orleans chef and restaurateur John Besh shares his philosophy for putting together simple, delicious meals on a regular basis at home. Besh emphasizes the importance of what he calls Kitchen Focus: creating simple, refined dishes using just a handful of the best quality ingredients.  He recommends stocking your pantry in a strategic way in order to be able to bring meals together without a need for last-minute runs to the grocery store. Many of Besh’s suggested pantry items reflect the multicultural way modern cooks approach the kitchen, listing ingredients such as rice noodles, risotto rice, Israeli couscous, stone-ground grits and sambal chili paste. Fresh produce and meats complete the flavorful recipes.

 

Casual home cooks will appreciate Besh’s clear explanations and easy to follow directions for what he terms “master recipes,” easily customizable recipes for things like risottos, frittatas, and fruit crumbles. Narrative passages instruct on practical topics such as one-pot meals, braising meats, cooking fish, and planning ahead in order to pull together quick weekday meals for families. True to his promise, recipes throughout this approachable cookbook are uncomplicated yet interesting and delicious.

 

Designed in an oversized format, My Family Table is rife with inviting photos of ingredients, finished dishes, and Besh and his family, clearly enjoying these home-cooked recipes in their daily lives. This volume has all of the hallmarks of a cookbook you will return to again and again. My Family Table has been nominated for a 2012 James Beard Foundation cookbook award in the general cooking category.

Paula G.

 
 

A Whole Lot of Southern Fried Fun

A Teeny Bit of troubleCharleston pastry chef Teeny Templeton is back and once again finds herself caught up in the crazy in A Teeny Bit of Trouble. Small in stature but big in personality, Teeny is a lovable, quirky heroine who gets embroiled with nutty characters and wacky adventures.  As she says, “It's not every day that I bake a dozen Red Velvet cakes, learn my boyfriend may have a love child, and witness a murder.”

 

Teeny’s relationship with fiancé Cooper Miller is threatened when his high school sweetheart (and mean girl to Teeny), Barb Philpot tells Teeny their flame has been rekindled.  Of course Teeny resorts to surveillance, but her plan goes awry when she thinks that she witnesses Barb being strangled to death by a man wearing a Bill Clinton mask.  On top of that, before her untimely death Barb had ditched her ten-year-old daughter Emerson on Cooper . . . who may be Emerson’s father.

 

Teeny is charged with bringing Emerson back to her legal father in Teeny's hometown of Bonaventure, Georgia.  Once back home, Teeny is faced with bad memories, coded messages from the grave, and a possible black market of human parts.  West's second mystery has all the elements of a madcap Southern comedy sprinkled with deadly secrets and a lovely romance.  Readers who fell in love with Teeny in Gone With a Handsomer Man will be delighted with her continued escapades.  Newcomers will be running back to the first book to catch up. 

 

Michael Lee West lives on a farm in Lebanon, Tennessee which helps explain her ability to give readers such vibrant Southern settings in her novels.  She loves animals and also enjoys cooking, tablescaping, and interior design.  Foodies and decorating fans should check out her blog http://www.designsbygollum.blogspot.com/ where she offers “recipes and design for exhausted people” and every Friday is Foodie Friday.

Maureen

 
 

A 5-foot-tall Metal Chicken Named Beyoncé and Other Adventures

Let's Pretend This Never HappenedPopular blogger Jenny Lawson has written a new memoir that will appeal to fans of David Sedaris, Laurie Notaro, and Chelsea Handler.  In Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: (A Mostly True Memoir), Lawson’s writing is hilarious, honest, and often profane. 

 

Lawson begins by taking readers through her delightfully weird childhood and upbringing in rural Texas.  Like many people, Lawson says her life and family are crazy, but she is certain that her family is crazier than yours!  Her father is a taxidermist, a profession which brought about some bizarre situations in Lawson’s life like the night he created a dead-squirrel hand puppet named Stanley to show his young daughters. 

 

She goes on to tell readers about her life now with her long-suffering husband Victor and their daughter.  Readers will laugh out loud while reading Lawson’s stories about a scorpion infestation in her house, her time working in human resources, and her misadventures with a 5-foot-tall metal chicken named Beyonce. 

 

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened also has some brutally honest moments.  Lawson opens up about her heartbreaking miscarriages, and her ongoing struggle with anxiety disorder.  In the end, she faces serious challenges along with the absurdities in life and manages to comes out laughing.

 

Lawson’s award-winning blog, thebloggess.com, also reflects warped sense of humor and ongoing love of strange taxidermy.  Lawson’s irreverent writing style is not for the easily offended, but her skewed sense of humor and sardonic wit will bring readers back for more.

Beth

 
 

The King Has Gone to the Village

King PeggyLife changes in unimaginable ways when Peggielene Bartels, a naturalized U.S. citizen and embassy secretary in Washington D.C., learns she has been elected the new king of a poor coastal fishing village in Ghana. She shares her engaging story in King Peggy: an American Secretary, Her Royal Destiny, and the Inspiring Story of How She Changed an African Village, coauthored with Eleanor Herman.

 

Bartels' improbable journey begins in 2008 with a 4 a.m. wake up call from a tribal elder. The current king of Otuam and Bartels’ uncle "will not be coming back from the village” anytime soon, an African euphemism for "he is dead."

 

Maintaining her American base while fulfilling royal duties a continent away presents an uphill challenge for Bartels, who takes her new role seriously. She frequently seeks spiritual guidance to know how she can make a difference. She finds the village of 7,000 people rife with corruption, discrimination and alcohol abuse, while at the same time lacking basic educational opportunities, clean water and health care. There is also the matter of keeping long dead ancestors happy. Fortunately (but not always) for King Peggy, she has a bevy of relatives ready to lend a hand, if not some comic relief. Her job is a big one.

 

This pithy, fast paced account is narrated in the third person and is rich with African symbolism, rituals, and humorous head scratching situations. Just like traditional Ghanaian kenté cloth (the patterns of which symbolize one's true nature) King Peggy's loyalty to family, feisty determination, and power of forgiveness represent the best efforts of one woman to make a difference one day at a time.

Cynthia

 
 

A Wall Street Love Story

A Wall Street Love Story

posted by:
April 30, 2012 - 1:01am

Bond GirlErin Duffy’s debut novel Bond Girl takes chick lit to Wall Street.  Bond Girl gives readers a sense of the pressure and atmosphere of working on Wall Street. This funny, fast-paced novel is a new spin on traditional chick lit that will leave readers wanting more.

 

Alex Garrett takes an entry-level bond sales position in world of “The Street,” which Duffy portrays as part high stress job and part frat house.  When Alex begins working at Cromwell Pierce, the all-male group that she works with dubs her Girlie, and she has to earn her place by starting as the team’s errand-girl. They definitely work hard and play hard.  One-upmanship is endless.  Hijinks include nonstop practical jokes, an errand to the Bronx for a $985 wheel of cheese, and the infamous $28,000 vending machine bet.  Alex’s life becomes a blur of work, office social engagements, and a disastrous secret office romance until the economic crisis brings her world crashing down. 

 

After Duffy lost her job at Merrill Lynch in 2008, she decided to pursue writing, and Bond Girl was the result.  Circumstances were sometimes exaggerated and names were changed to protect the innocent (or guilty), but many of the events in the book are based on things that Duffy saw and heard about in her time on Wall Street. Duffy is already working on her second novel, which will leave both the city and the world of finance behind. 

Beth

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Families: Lost and Found

Families: Lost and Found

posted by:
April 30, 2012 - 1:00am

Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea Lost Saints of TennesseeGirlchild Every family has a story.  Three recent debut novels explore the unraveling of fragile families and the ever-present need for human connection.  In Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea by Morgan Callan Rogers, twelve-year-old Florine is growing up in a small Maine coastal town when her mother mysteriously disappears.  The disappearance has profound effects on Florine and her father and shapes the course of each of their lives.  Beautiful and tragic, Rogers provides a realistic look at small town life and independent people who must regroup and forgive if they are to build anything. 

 

In another book about familial relationships, The Lost Saints of Tennessee by Amy Franklin-Willis follows a Tennessee family from the 1940s to the 1980s.  The main character, Zeke, is still haunted by the drowning which claimed his twin brother over a decade prior.  Faced with divorce and strained relationships with other family members, he impulsively leaves town.  His time away allows him to reflect and he eventually faces both the flaws and strengths of the family that shaped his life.

 

The most tragic and hardscrabble of the three novels is Tupelo Hassman’s Girlchild. Hassman presents the dangerous and lost world of a Nevada trailer park through the eyes of one fractured family.  Rory Dawn Hendrix is seen by her family as their only hope.  She is smart, resourceful, and insightful, a change from the previous generations of Hendrix women.  Yet she is also still just a young girl, and the dangers of the community and its members threaten to engulf her and her plans for the future. 

 

Any of these three books would be good to take along on a vacation or for discussion at book clubs.  Enjoy, and look for more books from these authors in the future!

Melanie

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