Monday, April 30, 2012


As the spouse of "Sage," and a professional event planner for nearly 20 years, I have literally planned and attended hundreds of parties.  And we have been going to author events on at least a monthly basis for almost a decade.  I have never felt compelled to write a review from the event perspective - until now!

Last Friday evening, "Sage"and I headed to the Haight-Ashbury (an experience unto itself) for the launch of  God's Hotel at The Booksmith.  Let's be honest, this old San Francisco neighborhood is totally unique.  We dined at the Magnolia Pub, and I am still dreaming of short ribs and horseradish  foam.  Aaah!

We walked into the bookstore and were welcomed with wine and cheese that was lovely and well-presented.  However, what made the evening so unusual was something far more important than the "look" of an appetizer platter.  It was all about feelings.

Victoria Sweet, the author of God's Hotel, embodied an event's real and true purpose:  To build community.  She introduced herself to everyone there and made a personal connection with each of us.  Her comment to us - "You drove all the way up here from Los Gatos, didn't you?" - practically floored Lloyd.

We were energetically bound together and spellbound as she began storytelling and reading from her amazing book.  The presentation was poignant, informative, and relevant.  I loved it and will definitely read God's Hotel.

As Victoria was weaving her way to the table by the front door for the book signing, she squeezed past me and stopped.  "Thank you for your smile," she said.  Was she channeling my mother?  I looked around, and every audience member was beaming and chatting.

This was a community-building experience in all its glorious perfection.  It couldn't have been better.  Bravo!!!

Sunday, April 29, 2012


So, a couple of Tuesday afternoons ago I headed over to Barnes & Noble in The Pruneyard.  Since Tuesday is when the new books hit the bookstores (and ereaders), I like to go in and check out what's new.  Even though I'm on quite a few author email lists, I will oftentimes find a surprise or two.  Lo and behold, at a table right near the front door, is a young man sitting with stacks of hardcovers and paperbacks.  He looks like he's still in college, but he is an author.  As many of you know, I make it a practice to buy books from authors I run into at bookstores.  It is also my practice to introduce myself to them, give them a Booksage card (you should see the joy in their faces!), and promise to read and blog about the book.  I have read a number of books that I would have never read because of this practice:  female teen fantasy, paranormal, Amish lit, and erotic romance.  This latest book, The Oracle of Stamboul, by Michael David Lukas, is, once again, a book that I wouldn't think to pick up and read.  Boy am I glad I did.

The storyline is unique.  Eleonora Cohen is born to a Jewish carpet merchant in a small town on the Black Sea in 1877.  It is very clear early on that she is a prodigy.  When she is 8, circumstances dictate that she and her father make a visit to a Istambul, where she comes to the attention of the sultan, who is the supreme leader of the Ottoman Empire.  Does this sound like a book that you would be interested in reading?  Maybe not.  But unless you're committed to reading only mysteries, do not dismiss this book because of its premise.  This is a beautifully written book.  In fact, when I create my 4th edition of Fiction for the Non-Fiction Reader, this might have to be on it.  I absolutely loved it.  It's magic.

I'm going to do something now that I have never done in my blog.  I'm going to quote 3 passages that show how incredibly effective Michael is in his analogies.  The book is filled with them, but I'm pulling out 3.  I could have included several dozen.  Look how vividly he paints a picture:

"Mrs. Damakan pronounced her name with care, as if it were an inscription etched into the back of an amulet."

"She had expected it to be locked, but it gave easily, and there, like a nest of birds hidden at the back of a clerestory, was a stack of letters tied neatly with a string."

And, referring to a flock of birds, "A swath of purple against a bright orange sky, it contracted, then expanded, like an ethereal lung."

Now, never mind that I don't know what the heck a clerestory is, this is some excellent writing.  Every time I saw the word "like," I got excited because I knew another analogy was coming up.  In my dotage, I'm beginning to like books that are unusual, well-written, and not typically mainstream.  Who knew?

Michael's background in his young life is almost as interesting as the book.  He was a Fulbright scholar in Turkey, a proofreader in Tel Aviv, and a rotary scholar in Tunisia.  Now, he's an author living in Oakland, only a couple of miles from where I grew up.  Oftentimes serendipity comes along.  I feel that this is what happened to me on that Tuesday.  I can't imagine not having read this book, and I'm excited for when his next one comes out.  It may be a couple of years away, but I know that I'll be among the first in line to buy it.

Saturday, April 21, 2012


Okay, I'm a bit stunned.  I finally read The Hunger Games and for a very good reason - I thought that I should.  That's right, I read it out of obligation.  I figured that if I'm writing a book blog, I should probably read the books that are getting the most pub.  I also knew, going into this, that people of all ages have read it and enjoyed it.  Even knowing that, my expectations were low.  Well, color me chastened.  It was really good!  The story is unique (as far as my limited reading tastes go), and the writing is surprisingly high quality.  I just don't have a single negative thing to say about it.  In fact, I intend to read, at least, #2, Catching Fire, and, if all goes well, #3, Mockingjay.

Between the book and the movie, everybody knows what this is about.  But for the handful of people who have been living on a deserted island for the past couple of years, here it is in a nutshell.  The country is divided into 12 districts.  Every year, one boy and one girl, between the ages of 12-18, are selected from each district to take part in the Hunger Games.  They are called tributes and are put into a very large arena that covers many square miles and are left there until there is only one survivor.  That's right, they kill each other until there is a single tribute left.  The winner returns to his or her district and lives in cushy fashion for the rest of his or her life.

The Games themselves are pretty brutal.  But I was intrigued by the tribute selection process and, especially, by the preparations that are made prior to the start of the Games.  They each have their own team which prepares them for the pre-Games festivities.  These include costumes and make-up along with interviews and much feasting.  All of the pre-game activities and all of the game action is televised live to the whole country.  And if the murder and mayhem slow down, then the government artificially creates scenarios where the bloodshed picks back up again.

It's a crazy premise that's carried out very well.  Throw in a little romance, an inebriated mentor (the only surviving winner from District 12) and a quirky escort.  Add it up and you get a very entertaining 374 pages and a strong desire to see what happens in book #2.  Suzanne, nice job.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


When I posted the blog for God's Hotel, I also mentioned that Victoria Sweet was going to be at The Booksmith in San Fran April 27 for a launch party.  Rich can't make it that night and asked if she's going to be at any other bookstores.  So, I did the logical thing and asked Victoria.  She responded (promptly, I might add - thank you, Victoria).  Here are her other appearances:

4/19 - 1:00PM - The Book Passage - Corte Madera
5/03 - 7:00PM - Bookshop W. Portal - San Francisco
5/07 - 7:00PM - Books, Inc. - Berkeley
5/09 - 7:00PM - Kepler's - Menlo Park
5/10 - 7:00PM - Green Apple Bookstore, San Francisco
5/17 - 7:30PM - Bookshop - Santa Cruz

I think that Victoria is going to be a particularly special author to see in person.  I'll let you know right away after I see her.

Sunday, April 15, 2012


What is an almshouse, you ask?  A fine question.  An almshouse is a medical facility that provides extended care (sometimes many years) to those who no longer can provide it for themselves.  They all have medical conditions (oftentimes multiple conditions) that prevent them from being on their own.  They have already been to hospitals and county facilities and have otherwise run out of options.  God's Hotel, by Victoria Sweet, tells of just such a place.  In fact, Laguna Honda, in San Francisco, is the last almshouse in the country.  What also differentiates Laguna Honda from other hospitals is the sense of community that is present there.  This is more than just about the care of sick people (wait till you read about the aviary, greenhouse, and barnyard!).

Victoria is a doctor that has been practicing at Laguna Honda for over 20 years.  This true account of her experiences there is truly fascinating.  She not only gives a detailed explanation of how she came to be there (she thought her tenure would only last a couple of months), but she also relates how hospital, city, and state politics played such a major role in all that has happened over the last 2+ decades (she relates, in great detail, how the old Laguna Honda was replaced by the new Laguna Honda - thoroughly intriguing stuff).

If this were only a memoir about doctoring and politics, it would have been pretty interesting.  However, Victoria's journey is a unique one indeed.  She tells many stories about how patients influenced the doctor she has become.  These stories are very poignant, especially since they are about real people.  But even more fascinating is how she embraced pre-modern medicine.  She took the time to get both a Masters and a Phd in the history of medicine.  Victoria embraced the philosophy of a nun in Germany in the 1100's.  It is extremely eye-opening to discover how a modern-day doctor integrates medical practices from 800-900 years ago into how she practices medicine today.  And when Victoria explains what she learned and how she applies it, it makes perfect sense to the reader.  She even talks about her pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela ("The Way of St. James") and how that also affected how she practices medicine.  If you think Victoria has a lot to say in her book about the influences in her doctoring life, then you would be right.

As many of you already know, I'm not big on memoirs.  This came to me from Lindsay Wood of Penguin Group (USA) and is being published by one of its imprints, Riverhead Books.  I read anything Lindsay sends me even if I wouldn't have picked it up off the shelf myself (of course, I couldn't do that anyway until it's published later this month).  But I'm glad I read this.  If all you read is mysteries, this probably won't do it for you.  But if you read different genres, including non-fiction, then I think you will get quite a bit out of reading God's Hotel.  I know I did.

Author Event:  Victoria will be at The Booksmith in San Francisco on Friday night, April 27, at 7:30 for a launch party for God's Hotel.  I certainly intend to be there.  Anybody else?

Movie Note (yes, you read that right):  Last year, Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez starred in a movie, The Way, that was all about the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.  If you haven't seen it, get a hold of it and watch it.  It's terrific.

Book Title Explanation (what's next, an expose on the type of print used for the book?!):  Back in the old days, an almshouse were called Hotel Dieu - hence the title, God's Hotel.

Saturday, April 7, 2012


I have just read 2 more ARCs for Penguingroup Books.  Both will be published by next month.  They are:

Strindberg's Star - Jan Wallentin (May, 2012)
Prague Fatale - Philip Kerr (April, 2012)

The first one I liked, and the second one I really liked.

Strindberg's Star was written by a Swedish author, and this is his first book.  It combines a murder mystery with a little bit of mysticism and Norse mythology.  In 1897, Nils Strindberg crashed his hot air balloon at the North Pole.  He is carrying an old Egyptian ankh and a star.  There is a secret society from Germany that spends the next 115 years trying to track those 2 pieces down.  The society will do anything to get their hands on both because of their magical/mystical properties.  Separate, neither is of any value.  Together, it is believed that they can lead to mircles.

The hero, Don Titelman, is really an anti-hero.  He is 43 years old and takes a large array of pills, self-prescribed, to help him get through life.  It's not often that such a seemingly pathetic figure can generate so much sympathy, maybe even empathy.  He has a very quirky sister who even provides him with a railroad car that is not registered in the system, which enables him to travel off the grid (presumably).  Penguingroup Books describes Strindberg's Star as a "cross-genre thriller."  I would have to agree with that.  Would I run out and buy Wallentin's next book (which will not be about Titelman)?  Perhaps.  At the very least, it's a solid read, with suspense, action, and a fairly satisfying ending.  Unless you're expecting Stieg Larsson (just because Wallentin is also a Swede), I would recommend this one.

Philip Kerr's book was a true revelation.  This book is the latest in a long series and still felt like book #1.  I didn't feel that I needed to read earlier books to know the protagonist's history.  It stood on its own.  The book has a very unusual premise.  It's 1941 in Berlin.  Bernie Gunther is a Berlin policeman.  He's not a Nazi and not a member of the Party.  He has been to the East and seen, and participated in, atrocities that haunt him every night.  He often believes that he would just as soon kill himself than live with the memories.

So, he's living in the middle of the Nazis during WWII.  He's not only an excellent policeman, he also has a conscience.  He doesn't understand why the Jews are being singled out for "special treatment."  In fact, he has 2 Jewish widows living in his office building who he risks his own well-being for in order to help feed.  If the fact that he is not like the others were the only theme, it would still be interesting.  But what amps up the story is the fact that one of the leading Nazis, Reinhard Heydrich, brings him to Prague to investigate a murder.  On the one hand, here is Gunther who hates the Nazis, and, in particular, Heydrich, with a smoldering passion.  On the other hand, he is working directly for Heydrich.  It makes for a lot of very interesting confrontations/altercations with Heydrich and other high-ranking Nazis.  Throw in a lover/paramour/whore who has an interesting story to tell(!), and you get a book that has a bunch of different elements.

I thought it was very well written, extremely creative, and seemingly authentic (especially based on the author's notes at the end of the book).  I don't know how a British author knows so much about Nazi Germany, but it certainly appears that he does.

Read Strindberg's Star when you get to the bottom of the stack of books on your nightstand.  Move Prague Fatale to the top (or near the top) of that same stack of books.  You'll thank me for it.


I know Volume II only came out a couple of months ago, but I've got another baker's dozen to give you.  4 of the 13 are repeat authors, and, obviously, 9 are new.  Plus, 2 are non-fiction, which sort of goes counter to the title of the blog.  But both of these are excellent books that read like fiction - similar to The Glass Castle, which was in Volume I.  Here they are.  They are listed in the order that they came to mind - in other words, no order at all.  Oh, and by the way, I had 1 book in Volume II that I forgot to name.  It was Richard North Patterson's book about abortion.  It's called Protect and Defend.  Sorry about that.

Tom Rob Smith - Secret Speech.  This is book 2 in the series about the young gung ho KGB officer who develops a conscience.  As a reminder, this takes place in the 1950's.  I loved book 1, and book 2 is every bit as good.  P.S.  I recently read book 3 and loved that one too.
Harlan Coben - Stay Close.  This is his latest and another standalone.  All 21 of his adult novels (he has started a young adult series that I haven't read) are excellent.  Why did I pick this one?  Mostly because it's the latest.  I'm hoping that this will send new readers to Coben.  I guarantee that you will not be disappointed - with this one or any other of his books.
Jodi Piccoult - The Pact.  This is, I think, my second favorite of hers, after My Sister's Keeper.  This one is about 2 high schoolers, a boy and a girl, that make a suicide pact.  Only one follows through.  What this does to the survivor and the 2 families is truly masterful writing - and reading.
Tami Hoag - Night Sins.  This is a murder mystery that's a bit rough to read.  It starts with a young child's kidnapping from an ice rink in Minnesota.  The subject matter may be a turn-off for some of you. It's an excellent book, though.  The sequel, Guilty as Sin, was just about as good.
Billie Letts - Honk and Holler, Opening Soon.  This is a book that was my favorite of the year when I read it back in the early 2000's.  It's quirky and a true delight.  I have enjoyed all of Letts' books, but this one stands out.  There's not really much of a plot, but it centers on the owner of a small cafe and his relationship with one of his female employees.  You will like it.
Nelson De Mille - Word of Honor.  I would say, like Piccoult, that this is my 2nd favorite De Mille - after Charm School.  This book patterns itself after the true-life My Lai incident from the Viet Nam war.  An officer, who has returned to civilian life, is indicted 13 years after he allegedly directed a massacre of Viet Nam civilians.  It's really well done.
Ken Follett - World without End.  This is the sequel to Pillars of the Earth.  If Pillars is one of my favorite 3 books of all time (The Source by Michener and Shogun by Clavell being the other 2), then World is one of my top 25 books of all time.  It takes place 200 years after Pillars and is, once again, a masterpiece of fiction.
Lauren Hildenbrand - Unbroken (non-fiction).  Everybody knows about this one.  It chronicles a world-class track star who ends up as a Japanese prisoner of war.  It's an amazing story and will have you on edge throughout the entire book.
Erik Larson - In the Garden of Beasts (non-fiction).  This one was not quite as popular/well-known as Unbroken but was every bit as good.  The story takes place starting in 1933 when a college history professor is appointed by FDR to become ambassador to Germany in Berlin.  It not only addresses the rise to power of Hitler, but it also talks about what being an ambassador meant in those days.  This is the same guy who wrote Devil in the White City, about the 1896 World's Fair in Chicago.  I liked this one much better.
Khaled Hosseini - Kite Runner.  Yes, I know I just wrote about this in my blog about books that started out small and became big - in this case, huge.  Regardless, it's an excellent book.  Everybody, and I mean everybody, knows what this book is about.  Enough said.
Ann Patchett - Bel Canto.  This is another one from that same list.  Even though I didn't like the ending as much as others did (although it was certainly better than Grisham's endings!), the story itself is beautifully told.  Reading about how hostages interacted with their captors made me feel like I was there in the palace with them.
George Pelecanos - The Turnaround.  I really liked this a lot.  It's a very interesting premise.  It's about teenage boys who end up in the wrong part of town, with tragic results.  The story picks up 30 years later and focuses on the fallout from that incident.
Michael Lavigne - Not Me.  I can't tell you much because I don't want to give the plot away.  Suffice it to say that it focuses on an elderly Jewish man who is very philanthropic in the community.  The book explores how this came to be.  It starts with WWII.  That's all I'm saying.  It's definitely 1 of the most interesting story lines I can remember ever reading.

Don't worry.  I have no plans for a Volume IV - yet.