Saturday, June 30, 2012

Flipped Out

Flipped Out (A Do-It-Yourself Mystery #5)Flipped Out by Jennie Bentley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

3.5 stars, really, because I guessed the villain from the very beginning, although I did not guess a couple of the subplots.

Avery and Derek are about to renovate another house, this time for television. Avery's stepfather has arranged for them to be featured on an episode of "Flipped Out!" which his TV network produces. When the crew arrives to start filming, the director, Nina, discovers that the owner of the house in question is a former colleague and boyfriend of hers from twenty years ago. Tony, now a Maine TV news reporter, has just gotten engaged to Derek's ex-wife, so when he takes Nina to dinner to discuss the past and is subsequently found stabbed to death in his vacant house, both Melissa and Nina are prime suspects. Things are rarely what they seem, however, and most everyone involved is harboring secrets.

My favorite thing about the latest addition to this series is how well-developed the sub-plots are. They are what keep this story interesting and keep it moving. My least favorite thing is that now I have to wait for Jennie Bentley to publish another book before I can find out what happens next in the lives of the residents of Waterfield.

For readers' advisors: story and character doorways, a small amount of well-timed swearing, and still no on-screen sex scenes.

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Friday, June 29, 2012

Mortar and Murder

Mortar and Murder (A Do-It-Yourself Mystery, #4)Mortar and Murder by Jennie Bentley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In early April, Derek and Avery begin renovating their latest project, a 1783 center-chimney Colonial on the verge of collapse on a small island off the coast of Maine. All is well until they spot the body of a young woman floating in the water. At first they try to stay out of it and let the police do their job, but...that doesn't last long. Not when the girl has a slip of paper with cyrillic writing on it, including the name of their realtor, Irina. Soon they are stumbling over another body and snooping around empty houses, finding secret smugglers' rooms and more cyrillic names. Is Irina's subsequent disappearance a sign of innocence, or is she involved in the human-trafficking ring?

Jennie Bentley is getting better and better at writing cozy mysteries--this time I didn't figure out the bad guys until the very end! I had my suspicions about a few of the red herrings and scattered clues, but I was successfully surprised to discover who was behind the murders. Hooray!

I like the home design/renovation tips at the ends of these books and in this case, I also like the explanation of some of the historical practices such as sailcloth rugs, poor man's runners, and Colonial paneling. Chances are slim to none that I'll ever do such things myself, but I find them interesting nonetheless.

For readers' advisors: story and character doorways, a few more mild sexual innuendos and references than in previous books, but still no sex scenes and very little swearing.

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Sunday, June 24, 2012

Plaster and Poison

Plaster and Poison (A Do-It-Yourself Mystery, #3)Plaster and Poison by Jennie Bentley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Avery and Derek have started a new renovation project turning Kate's carriage house into a romantic getaway apartment for Kate and Wayne to live in after their wedding. Everything is going fabulously well until they discover the dead body of Kate's no-good ex (Shannon's father) laid out in the bedroom upstairs. If that weren't bad enough, Derek's stepsister vanishes, leaving her car and her cell phone at the office where she's been doing bookkeeping while she waits for her husband to realize she's left him.

The third time really is a charm: I didn't guess the culprit until the very end! I had some suspicions about a few things, but I didn't figure it all out right away like in the first two books in this series. Hooray! This one is definitely my favorite so far. Fantastic cozy mystery.

For readers' advisors: story and character doorways. Still no sex or violence and almost no swearing.

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Saturday, June 23, 2012

American Chick in Saudi Arabia

American Chick in Saudi ArabiaAmerican Chick in Saudi Arabia by Jean Sasson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Jean Sasson has written several other well-known books (The Rape of Kuwait and Growing Up bin Laden, for example), but this is her own story of going to live in Saudi Arabia in 1978 as a single, blond, American woman. She was and is a champion for women's rights in a region of the world where women are still very much second-class citizens. Sasson was an extraordinarily adventurous woman in an era where even Western women were just learning to spread their wings. (My biggest accomplishments in 1978 were learning to read and attending preschool, so I can't say I have much first-hand experience of this struggle.)

As interesting as I found her stories, I was disappointed that the book felt hastily written. It's extremely short, for one thing--only 67 pages of the 80 in my eBook version from NetGalley were written by Jean Sasson. And not much time is spent on setting the scene or laying out a coherent storyline. I was nearly to the end before I realized that Jean was not the 23-year-old ingenue I'd been picturing but rather a 30-ish twice-divorced woman. Perhaps I should have done some research on her before reading her memoir?  I did read in one of the appendices that more information, including a timeline, is available on her website.  Too bad that wasn't in the book!

In addition to the feeling of skipping thither and yon, I got the impression that this slim volume was written not so much to tell Jean's amazing life story but to highlight a particular viewpoint about women's lack of freedom in Saudi Arabia both then and now. It felt evangelical, like a crusade, which made me uncomfortable despite my belief that Saudi women are long overdue for a cultural revolution resulting in equal rights. For a memoir, very little of the book focuses on Jean's daily life in Riyadh. And if she's going to use the book as a pulpit for freedom, I'd have liked to read more of an in-depth analysis of her day(s?) beneath the all-encompassing black robes and veils. In her thirty years in the Arab world, surely she must have witnessed a variety of responses to the restrictive modes of dress?

Then again, I did just read a Goodreads posting from Jean herself letting readers know that this is only part one of what she envisions as a 5-volume memoir, so perhaps later portions will fill in some details. Obviously I am not the only reader/reviewer who wished for more of the story. Had there been more substance to this first part than tales of three Saudi women she met from different backgrounds and their experiences with their husbands and veils, I would likely have rated the book three or even four stars. As fascinating (and sad, in the later two cases) as the women's stories were, the telling felt more like a campaign than a reflecting back, as I'd hope a memoir to be. Nevertheless, I will be interested in reading volume two to see what improvements and additions Sasson makes.

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Friday, June 22, 2012

A Month of Summer

A Month of Summer (Blue Sky Hill #1)A Month of Summer by Lisa Wingate
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Johanna Parker's versatile voice brings this book to life in the audiobook version of Lisa Wingate's novel. I checked it out at random from my library's digital audiobook service when I was testing their updated mobile app. I'd never heard of the book or the author; I just liked the cover. I liked the ideas of planting a seedling and a month of summer. What an amazing bonus it was to discover such a lovely story!

Rebecca Macklin has spent more than 30 years believing her father abandoned her and her mother for a new life with his new wife and her mentally challenged son. She has held on to that bitterness for so long, she doesn't even see how it's poisoned her relationship with her husband and cut her off from three decades of her father's love. Now her father has Alzheimer's disease, and her stepmother, Hanna Beth, has had a massive stroke. Reluctantly, Rebecca boards a plane to Dallas, leaving behind her 9-year-old daughter, Macey, and her struggling marriage in order to spend a few weeks taking care of her father and stepbrother, Teddy. Their caretaker has vanished, leaving behind a filthy house, disconnected utilities, and empty bank accounts.

Hanna Beth Parker is determined to regain her powers of speech and control over her bodily functions. The idea that her beloved husband and son are dependent on the whims of her angry, hurt stepdaughter scares her. She knows that Rebecca has no idea what really happened all those years ago. But for now, Hanna Beth is trapped inside her uncooperative body with only the nurses and her "neighbor" and fellow patient, Claude, for company.

This is a story about family--biological and otherwise. It's a story of forgiveness and learning to love and trust. It's a story categorized as "Christian Fiction," surprisingly enough, since there is zero preachiness and no sermons on How To Pray And Be Saved From All Your Troubles. (I usually hate "Christian Fiction" because most of it is proselytizing thinly veiled with a not-terribly-well-written story. It makes me embarrassed to be a Christian.) Some of the coincidences, however, are Positively Providential (as Mrs. Rachel Lynde would say).

Johanna Parker's voice wraps around you like a warm shawl on a chilly day. Each character sounds different, almost as though the book were read by a full cast instead of by one talented woman. For example, the native Texans spoke with thicker accents, while Rebecca retained only a hint of her roots, and Macey sounded like a child of the West Coast.

My only quibble with this novel, and the only reason I didn't give it 5 stars, is that at times I felt like Rebecca was a little too angst-y for a 45-year-old woman. Then again, in her situation I might also be afraid to broach difficult subjects with my husband and would shy away from unwanted realities, too. I sometimes found myself almost yelling at my car stereo, "For crying out loud, just say it! Just tell the truth! You people need to learn how to communicate!" As is true in real life, so much anguish and drama would be eliminated if everyone always spoke the truth no matter what, no excuses.

Overall, though, I loved this book and was sad to have it end. I look forward to reading (listening to!) the other books in this series.

For readers' advisors: character doorway, definitely. Everything else paled in comparison, although the story was also good, and the narrator made the language come alive. Since it's Christian Fiction, it's "clean," meaning no sex, violence, or bad language.

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Cooking from the Farmers' Market

Williams-Sonoma Cooking from the Farmers MarketWilliams-Sonoma Cooking from the Farmers Market by Jodi Liano
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The photos in this new cookbook are luscious--food porn, to be honest. Gorgeous and mouth-watering enough to make me wish I liked cooking. Tempting enough to have me thinking about actually attempting a few of the simpler recipes.

Make no mistake, this is not a cookbook intended for the culinary novice. I had hopes it might be, especially when it opened with photos of fresh food and charts of fruit and vegetable seasons. It even ends with a fabulous index (by ingredient!) and recipes for some oft-repeated basics like pastry dough and cooked white rice. And every fruit or vegetable begins with a lesson on what to look for, how to store it, and a brief history of the item. Love that!

However, as simple as some of the recipes are, others call for things like "oyster sauce." (Is that a real thing, and do I even want to know?) Not every recipe has been photographed, nor have any key steps. There are cheeses I've never heard of, and instructions I don't fully understand. Blanching, for example. Despite the instructions at the end of the book on how to do that, I'm still not clear on what that word means outside the context of human emotions and facial expressions.

Rather, this is a book one has for inspiration. For planning a fancy dinner party menu to delight one's guests. Or to give to a true foodie--someone whose passion involves shopping for and cooking lovely, healthy food. Don't get me wrong: I adore this book and am thrilled to have received an eBook version through NetGalley. I have immensely enjoyed reading it and even learned a few things along the way. I plan to try out a handful of the recipes on Sundays when I can both go to my local farmers' market and have the free time to work on preparing the dishes. But this beautiful book is better suited to a chef. Maybe not a professional chef who should have already learned these things in culinary school, but an amateur hobbyist chef who enjoys entertaining family and friends.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

I Am a Pole (and so can you!)

I Am a Pole (And So Can You!)I Am a Pole by Stephen Colbert
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Stephen Colbert cracks me up!

I bought copies of this book for my husband and my brother, thinking it would be more like Colbert's previous book I Am America (and so can you!). I didn't realize it was written as a picture book. While the cadence of the language lends itself to reading the book aloud, I don't think I'll be reading it to any preschoolers any time soon, though, thanks to the (really funny) page about the pole dancer. However, my mother, my husband, my eleven-year-old stepson, and I all laughed out loud while reading it to ourselves, which I see as a great sign of widespread appeal.

The story is of a pole trying to find its calling in life. It tries out many careers before settling on the patriotic one of displaying the American flag.

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More Tinkering

Please stand by...I'm doing some more fiddling and now need to get re-sized versions of a few of my gadgets.  Turns out they don't all auto-adjust their widths.  Good to know!

Any suggestions for what should go where, or does this work?  Please leave your helpful ideas in the comments below!  Thanks!

Spackled and Spooked

Spackled and Spooked (A Do-It-Yourself Mystery, #2)Spackled and Spooked by Jennie Bentley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'd have given this one 4 stars except that I again figured out who'd done it, why, and how, pretty much from the very beginning. Ditto with the other "big secret" in the story. I'm not usually that great at figuring out mystery novels, and I like it that way, so knowing all along was annoying. However, I still really enjoyed the characters and the story--watching them figure it out, that is.

This time, Avery Baker and her boyfriend Derek Ellis have purchased a vacant house to renovate and sell. It's been empty for about seventeen years, since Brian Murphy killed his wife and in-laws and then himself. Gossip says it's haunted, which Avery & Derek think is nonsense until they hear footsteps walking down the hallway with no one in sight. Then Derek discovers a human bone in the crawlspace, and suddenly there is a whole new murder for Chief Wayne to investigate, this one more recent. When the cadaver dog makes for the next door neighbor's house, the situation goes from bad to worse.

Engaging, believable characters make up for the lack of suspense, I think. It's a perfect cozy mystery: light and fun. A good beach read. Or couch read, in the event that your beach-going plans fall through. Bring on #3! (This was #2 in the Do-It-Yourself Mystery series.)

For readers' advisors: character and story doorways, no sex, and very little swearing.

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Voter Motivation

I saw this posted on Facebook today.  Moral of the story?  Don't mess with libraries or librarians!  Sharing information is more than just our profession--it's our calling.

This just makes me so happy.  Finally an example of the Good Guys beating the Tea Party.  Ahhhhh....

Playing around

I'm on vacation this week and so am playing around.  Yes, I should be organizing the office & the garage.  And doing yard work.  But it's rainy at the moment, and I've not mustered the willpower yet.  So I'm playing on my computer, tinkering with the design of my blog.  What do you think?  Better?  Worse?  I also liked the design in the "Simple" template section that had sort of a circular pattern in a darker (blue) color than the header.  But I chose this one because of the bookshelves, which seemed appropriate, and I could get the header to be a periwinkle color, which also seemed appropriate.  Can't quite get the same shade for the footers, but I'm still working on that.  Anyway--what are your thoughts?  (And please be kind!)  ☺ Thanks!

Monday, June 18, 2012

Fatal Fixer-Upper

Fatal Fixer-Upper (A Do-It-Yourself Mystery, #1)Fatal Fixer-Upper by Jennie Bentley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Avery Baker barely remembers her Great-Aunt Inga, but when she gets a puzzling hand-written request from the elderly woman asking Avery to visit soon, it's time for a road trip from New York City to small-town Maine...especially after Avery catches her boyfriend/boss cheating on her with the receptionist. Unfortunately, upon arrival in Waterfield, she discovers Aunt Inga has died and left her everything--primarily a large Victorian house badly in need of repair. And that is how she comes to meet Derek Ellis, the handsome local renovation specialist. Before long, they're duking it out over kitchen countertops and cabinets. But Avery isn't the only one with an interest in Aunt Inga's old house, and someone is determined to either scare her away or kill her. The trick is to figure out who and why before he succeeds.

My mom recommended this series to me a few months ago, but it wasn't until I was working on a readers' advisory presentation on mysteries that I decided to go ahead and try it out. (All in the name of research, of course!) I still have trouble believing Avery would have dated Philippe (her over-the-top "French" boss) for more than one date, much less four months. He made me want to gag. But Bentley more than makes up for this flaw in the story by slowly, gradually, carefully building the relationship between Avery and Derek. There were no "eyes heating" or "air crackling with electricity" moments, unless you count their arguments over home design. It was a refreshing change of pace!

I also enjoyed the secondary characters, such as Kate, the local B&B owner, and her boyfriend Wayne, the chief of police. They were smart and funny people, and even if Avery is the series "sleuth," I appreciated that Wayne wasn't portrayed as a half-witted buffoon.

Although I figured out the bad guy almost from the very beginning, I didn't guess all the details, and the story still kept me hooked until the very end. Kept me up past my bedtime, in fact, until I finished it.

For readers' advisors: story and character doorways, no sex, and only a few swear words.

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Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Shape of Desire

The Shape of Desire (A Shifting Circle Novel)The Shape of Desire by Sharon Shinn
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I've been struggling with how to rate this one. Sharon Shinn is one of my favorite fantasy writers. And yet...meh. This one didn't do it for me. Too much angst. I kept forgetting the main character was supposed to be in her thirties. She behaved much of the time like she was 19--come to think of it, she reminded me of Bella from Twilight. I didn't exactly dislike her; I just wished she'd grow a spine and not waste so much of her time moping over her boyfriend. And there didn't seem to be a solid foundation for a 15-year-long relationship, which is unusual for a Sharon Shinn novel.

I thought the premise of the story had potential: the difficulties of being in love with a shapeshifter who was increasingly not in human form. How do you balance your life to hide his secret? But why did Maria feel compelled to make up SO many lies? She lied to practically everyone about practically everything, and for no really good reason. I never understood why she couldn't just tell people she had a boyfriend named Dante who traveled a lot? Why did she try to hide his existence? When she did need to lie to protect him, why didn't she stick to as much of the truth as she could? That would have made her life--and everyone else's--so much better and less complicated. Instead, she lied constantly, even to Dante eventually. It's not a recipe for healthy, successful relationships, and it's utterly unnecessary. I can understand being apprehensive about broaching a difficult topic with your partner, but if after 15 years together you can't trust him enough to be sure he didn't murder people in parks, then maybe you should not be sleeping with him like a rabid, horny teenager!

I had such a hard time getting through this. It did eventually get a little exciting toward the end. If it hadn't been written by Shinn, I'd have given up and quit reading it after the first couple of chapters, though.

*sigh* OK, Ms. Shinn, enough with the contemporary paranormal stuff. Please go back to writing another Twelve Houses novel or something!

For readers' advisors: tons of swearing and sex. I'm struggling with appeal doorways because the book wasn't very appealing to me, but technically I'd say the doorways are character and story.

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Saturday, June 9, 2012

Hunter's Moon

Hunter's MoonHunter's Moon by Karen Robards

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Meh. This was due back to the library today, so I picked it up yesterday to see if it was good enough to renew. It's never a good sign when there's an annoying typo on page 3: " the manner [sic] born." Argh! Really? A brand new re-print, and still nobody caught that it should read " the manor born"? *sigh*

I see from the tiny author blurb that she lives in Louisville, KY, and yet on page 59 she begins to refer to Lexington, KY, as a "small but busy city" and a couple of pages later calls it "small, picturesque Lexington." It's the second-largest city in Kentucky, with nearly 300,000 people. Just how snobby ARE people from Louisville? Yeah, 300,000 isn't like New York or Chicago, but it's not what I'd call small either.

Those two annoyances plus a not very exciting plot or likeable/believable characters = I'm returning the book without finishing it. Maybe it gets better later on. I have enjoyed Robards' books in the past. But I have way too many other books waiting for my attention right now to finish this one.

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Thursday, June 7, 2012

I added my blog to Blog Nation today

I ran across a site today called "Blog Nation" that is kind of a giant directory of blogs.  There is even a whole section of book review blogs, which is fabulous!  So I signed up and added their "badge" to my blog.  Now I need your help:  please visit my blog and click on the badge in the upper right corner.  This will help boost my ratings so more people will maybe find out about my blog.

Thank you so much!

Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict

Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen AddictRude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict by Laurie Viera Rigler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to wake up in a different place and time? How would you react? How would you adapt?

Jane Mansfield hits her head when she falls off her horse in England in 1813, but when she awakens, it is 2009, and she is in the body of Courtney L.A. There is a strange man in the other room, a glowing box contains tiny people acting out her favorite book, all of the clothes in the closet are inappropriate for a lady, and a horrible, deafening noise only stops when she accidentally knocks into the bumpy black box with the bright red numbers. How can this be? Why can she not wake from this strange dream? And how on earth is she supposed to fix Courtney's messed-up life?

This is the companion to Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict, and I wish I had read them closer together because I had forgotten a few details about the first book. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed the story of a Regency-era lady experiencing for the first time the freedom to make her own choices. I love the idea of time travel and have often daydreamed about what it would be like to travel backward or forward in time. How would one avoid the insane asylum?

For readers' advisors: character and story doorways, with character primary

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SwindleSwindle by Gordon Korman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What would you do if someone swindled you out of a million-dollar Babe Ruth baseball card? Griffin Bing wants his card back, but no one listens to kids, so he comes up with a plan. A plan for a heist. And not just any heist, but the biggest, most elaborate one Cedarville, NY, has ever seen. Things do not go exactly as planned, however.

I loved this fast-paced story of kids fighting injustice with unorthodox methods. Funny and exciting and a great pick for tween boys especially. I plan to take it home and try it out on mine, in fact.

For readers' advisors: story doorway is primary, character is secondary, and there is a moral to this story.

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Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Not So Big Life: Making Room for What Really Matters

The Not So Big Life: Making Room for What Really MattersThe Not So Big Life: Making Room for What Really Matters by Sarah Susanka
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I love Sarah Susanka's home design books, but I was a little surprised to learn she had also written a book that fell into the spiritual journey/self-help arena (or "conduct of life," as it's cataloged in my library). I was feeling the need for some inspiration, so I checked it out last fall when I was home sick for a while.

Susanka applies principles of great home design to create guidelines on how to live one's life, and what she has to say fits in well with other books like The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz and The Unmistakable Touch of Grace by Cheryl Richardson. I admit that I just read through the exercises in the book rather than trying them, although I did sometimes think about what my answers would be. They were good exercises, and eventually I will probably go back and try many of them. I'm sure they would benefit me greatly. I was simply too exhausted at the time to muster the mental energy necessary, and I let myself believe the excuse of needing to get through the book so I could return it to the library on time. (Obviously this was bogus, as I kept renewing it for months.)

Despite how long it took me to finish, I really enjoyed reading this book. Susanka gave me new perspectives, new ways to observe my life and change old, ineffective patterns. It's not a quick read, but it's a good one.

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Friday, June 1, 2012

A Night Like This

A Night Like This (Smythe-Smith Quartet, #2) A Night Like This (Smythe-Smith Quartet, #2) by Julia Quinn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Curse you, Julia Quinn! I stayed up two hours past my bedtime because I could NOT put this book down until I finished it! I read on breaks and lunch. I read at the doctor's office. I even read while walking between my car and my library building (occasionally pausing to look for cars before crossing the streets) just to squeeze in a few extra minutes.

Eight years ago, Anne foolishly believed the lies of a handsome boy and was cast out for her mistake. She became a lady's companion and then a governess--eight long years of hiding from the young man and his vow of revenge, not to mention the unwanted attentions of her employers and their male relatives.

Three years ago, hampered by too much alcohol, Daniel, the Earl of Winstead, accidentally shot his friend, Hugh, in a duel and had to flee the country to escape the thugs hired by his friend's enraged father.

They meet on the night Daniel returns home (assured by Hugh that the threat is over), and sparks fly, but as his cousins' governess, Anne knows very well that he is out of her reach and therefore dangerous. Daniel refuses to believe that and persists in finding ways to sneak time with her, to Anne's delight and despair. Then an attempt is made on their lives...but which of them is the target?

For readers' advisors: story and character doorways are primary, but with the witty dialogue and historical (19th century England) setting, language and setting are secondary.

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