Saturday, February 28, 2015

FFTNFR, Volume VII - It's Been A Year, People

I can't believe that it's been over a year since I posted my last volume of Fiction for the Non-Fiction Reader (FFTNFR).  Can you?  You mean that you didn't even notice that it's been over a year?  Well, it has.  For those of you have been living in a literary cave-i.e. have started reading my blog only recently-FFTNFR is a list of those books that even non-fiction readers would enjoy.  And here's the next batch (#7):

Christine Baker Kline - Orphan Train.  This book came highly recommended and at least matched, if not exceeded, the hype.  The story, which is purely fiction, is based on the fact that between 1854-1929, 200,000 orphans from NYC were shipped, by train, to the Midwest.  They were taken in by families for a large variety of reasons, including the equivalent of slave labor.

Daniel James Brown - The Boys in the Boat.  This is the true story of the University of Washington's rowing team and how it got to the 1936 Berlin Olympics.  It's a fascinating read, with a lot of fun historical facts that I, as a history major, no less, knew nothing about.  It's 1 of 2 non-fiction books on this list.

Natalie Baszile - Queen Sugar.  A modern-day, Los Angeles-based black woman inherits her father's 700 acres of sugar cane in Louisiana.  Not only is this a very good book; but it's also going to be a TV series on Oprah's network later this year.  AND Ava DuVernay, the director of Selma, will be writing and directing the series!

Greg Iles - Natchez Burning.  This is Iles' 1st book in 5 years because of a serious car accident.  It was well worth the wait.  It's the 1st of a trilogy and is based on some serious racist acts in Mississippi  during the '60s.  Everything Iles writes is good.  But this is one of his best.  It was my highest rated book of 2014.

Jonathan Tropper - This Is Where I Leave You.  Maybe you saw the movie, starring Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, and Jane Fonda.  It was a terrific movie, but an even better book.  I had never heard of Tropper before Bob told me to read it.  But I will be going back to his others.  There's humor, poignancy, drama, and a whole slew of great characters.  I felt an emotional connection to many of them.

C. Lee McKenzie - The Princess of Las Pulgas.  This is the 1st YA (young adult) I've ever posted on these lists.  No matter what age you are, you will be drawn to the 16-year old female protagonist, her 14-year old brother, and their mother.  On page 2, the father dies, and everything changes for the family.  You will not be able to put this one down (plus, the author will be coming to Recycle Books, Campbell, on Tuesday, March 24, at 7:00, for the RBC).

Harlan Coben - The Stranger.  It might look like I automatically put every Coben on some kind of list.  But the truth is that he can really write.  His latest, which doesn't hit the shelves until March 24, is one of my favorites of his.  It's all about an upscale East Coast town and what happens when a stranger shows up and tells the protagonist a secret about his wife.  It's extremely creative, with lots of suspense.

Anthony Doerr - All the Light We Cannot See.  This is a hugely popular book club book. So, normally, I would pass on reading it.  In this case, though, it was our assigned book for the Books, Inc. 4th Tuesday Night Book Club.  It's 2 stories - 1 about an orphan boy in Berlin, and the other about a blind girl in Paris.  The stories converge during WWII.  Good stuff.

Tara Conklin - The House Girl.  The story goes back and forth between 1852 and 2004. Did a slave paint a number of pieces that were accredited to her mistress?  That's what a 1st-year law student, in a prestigious law firm, stumbles upon while working on a very important assignment for one of the partners.  I know that a lot of authors choose to alternate between 2 different time periods.  In this case, Doerr does it well.

Jamie Ford - Songs of Willow Frost.  Jamie's 1st book, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, made my Volume VI.  Like that one, Songs of Willow Frost takes place in Seattle. It also alternates time periods.  But it's the Depression vs. the 1930s, a pretty short gap. In this case, a 12-year old orphan (it looks like I have some obsession with orphans!) gets to see a famous singer for his birthday and is convinced that it's his mother.  Jamie can flat-out write.

Joshua Safran - Free Spirit:  growing up on the road and off the grid.  Joshua was our November RBC author.  His book is a memoir of his childhood in Northern California.  It's a real head shaker.  He makes Jeanette Walls' childhood, brought to life in The Glass Castle, look like a cakewalk.  This is fascinating stuff and very well-written.

Rachael Herron - Pack Up the Moon.  This one takes place in the East Bay (Northern California).  A woman who lost her 9-year old son years before has to deal with discovering a 22-year old daughter that she gave up at birth.  Add an ex-husband to the mix, and you've got a story with a lot of pieces to it.  Rachael creates characters that we can emotionally connect with.

Until next time (I've already got 3 lined up for volume VIII)...

Thursday, February 26, 2015

What if JFK Was Not Assassinated in Dallas? Forward to Camelot Imagines What Would Have Happened

Forward to Camelot, by Susan Sloate and Kevin Finn, imagines what would have happened if JFK had escaped Dallas back on 11/22/63.  2 years ago, there were a whole slew of books on the 50th anniversary of JFK's assassination.  Most of them were non-fiction.  But this is one of the exceptions.  What did I think, you ask?  Well, it took me a while to get into the book.  Much like Gone Girl, the 1st half was good, and the 2nd half took off.  I credit both Sloate and Finn for coming up with a story that kept me interested until it really hooked me.

This book is about more than just JFK.  I think it's worthwhile to read the synopsis from our friends at Goodreads:

On November 22, 1963, just hours after President Kennedy's assassination, Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as President aboard Air Force One using JFK's own Bible. Immediately afterward, the Bible disappeared. It has never been recovered. Today, its value would be beyond price. In the year 2000, actress Cady Cuyler is recruited to return to 1963 for this Bible-while also discovering why her father disappeared in the same city, on the same tragic day. Finding frightening links between them will lead Cady to a far more perilous mission: to somehow prevent the President's murder, with one unlikely ally: an ex-Marine named Lee Harvey Oswald. Forward to Camelot: 50th Anniversary Edition brings together an unlikely trio: a gallant president, the young patriot who risks his own life to save him, and the woman who knows their future, who is desperate to save them both. History CAN be altered.

So, to recap - we've got a re-writing of history, time travel, a famous bible, and a new look at Lee Harvey Oswald.  Plus we have a woman who goes back 37 years in time to learn the truth about her father.  What more do you need?  But there are also some extras that I really enjoyed:

1.  Even though I grew up in the '60s, there was all kinds of history I learned, including a bunch of stuff about JFK as the commander of PT109.
2.  It was very cool to read about Jackie's make-up and clothes for the 11/22/63 parade.
3.  The authors made me really care about Oswald.
4.  About 2/3 of the way through the book, I actually got chills.  That doesn't happen to me very often.
5.  I certainly had my share of smiling, laughing, uh-oh-ing, and, of course, crying.
6  40 pages from the end I REALLY cried.

I had this book in my TBR pile for a long time.  In fact, Susan was kind enough to send me a signed copy way back in June.  I kept telling her that I would get to it "soon."  And I kept reading other things.  Finally, I grabbed it and was determined to stick with it.  I'm very glad I did.  Nice job, guys.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Back-to-Back Author Events - What Better Way to Start off the Week?

I'm still floating a little bit.  Last night, Monday, Natalie Baszile, author of Queen Sugar, came down to the South Bay to attend Janet's book club.  As you all know, Natalie was our RBC December author.  We all loved her - and her book.  Shortly after Natalie's visit to Recycle, Janet asked Natalie to come to her Feb. 23 book club meeting.  Of course Natalie said yes.  Then we all subsequently learned that Queen Sugar had been optioned by Oprah and that the OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network) was actually going to develop QS into a series, scheduled for late this year.  And that Ava DuVernay, the director of Selma, would be the writer and director for the show.  It was loads of fun to hear how all that happened.

So on top of having Natalie there, Janet put out a great spread, with sugar as the overwhelming, but highly appropriate, main ingredient.  In fact, she even had sugar cane! There were almost 30 people at Janet's, and everybody had a great time.  Natalie is a true delight.

And then tonight, Tuesday, I was at the Los Gatos Library Evening Book Club.  We discussed The Boys in the Boat.  And it was really a lively discussion.  Melissa did her usual great job of leading the group.  And she even showed us a clip from Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi propaganda movie about the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.  It was so cool to see that.  And here's the best news from tonight - we had 4 men out of 15!  That's the highest percentage (26.67%) of men we've ever had in one of these meetings.  Watch it ladies.  Here we come!  Wait.  What?  You think it's because the book was about men and rowing?  Nah?  Hmmm...could be.  We'll see next month.

And speaking of next month, on March 24 we will be talking about Orphan Train.  This is the same Orphan Train that I just gave a 4/4 rating to.  I can't wait to talk about it.  Feel free to stop by.  It's open to everybody, and it goes from 6:30-7:30.

And this Sunday, March 1, Laila el-Sissi, author of Out from the Shadow of Men, will be at Recycle Books from 9:30-12:30.  She will be selling and signing her book.  Laila just got picked up by a SoCal publicist and is scheduled to attend some big New York book festival coming up in the next couple of months.  Laila's book is gaining a lot of momentum and a lot of pub.  Come see her before she hits the big time and forgets about us little people.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

A Review of Harlan Coben's Latest, The Stranger, Looks Like Every Other Coben Review

This is going to be very fast.  Harlan Coben's newest annual arrival is called The Stranger.  It hits the stores/ereaders on March 24.  But because I'm special (i.e. every blogger is "special"), I got the ARC and tore through it.  They're all good, but this one is better than most.  A classic mystery/suspense novel.  If you read Coben anyway, then you will, of course, read this one.  If you don't read Coben, then get started.  Any/all of them will do.

P.S.  Melissa, at the Los Gatos Library, gave me a link if you want to be included in the book club announcements. Here it is -

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Upcoming (and past) Events

Let's start with the past event - one.  Tuesday night, Alan Jacobson, author of Spectrum, and the Karen Vail series, came to Recycle Books for the RBC meeting.  We had a good crowd (as you can see from the pictures) and got to hear Alan tell us about his next book, which is coming out in October.  It will be his  6th published book, and the 1st one that focuses on characters other than Karen.  He kept us engaged for the better part of an hour.

There are some very cool events coming up in the next couple of months.  Here is a list (I know you can't wait):

1.  This coming Monday, Feb. 23, Natalie Baszile will be coming to Janet's house (one of our RBC members) to meet with Janet's book club (Natalie was our RBC author for December).  Since that date was set, we have all become aware that Natalie's book, Queen Sugar, was picked up by Oprah for her TV network, OWN, as a series.  The director of Selma, Ava DuVernay, will write and direct the series.  This will be the 1st chance to talk to Natalie since we heard the news.

2.  Have I spoken to you about the Los Gatos Library Evening Book Club?  Melissa Maglio does a great job of coming up with questions for the group.  I mention this because the February and March books are real good ones.  This coming Tuesday, the 24th, we are talking about The Boys in the Boat.  I gave it a 3.5/4.  And in March, on Tuesday the 17th, we will be discussing Orphan Train.  As you all know, I just read it and gave it a 4/4.  In fact, yesterday I saw a list of popular books for book clubs, and Orphan Train was #2 (All the Light We Cannot See, which I also gave a 3.5/4 to, was #1).  I'm telling you this in case you want to come to either/both meetings.  They're open to everybody, and they go from 6:30-7:30.

3.  I know I've mentioned Kepler's Book Swap before.  I went to one last year and thoroughly enjoyed it.  But due to circumstances beyond my control (probably within my control), I've missed the last couple.  Well, not this time.  The next one is Saturday night, March 7, and Joni and I are signed up.  I will be bringing John Hart's The Last Child.  I'm hoping to get some new readers for his books.  He is totally terrific.  As for the author who will be there that night, it's Elizabeth Rosner.  I'm looking forward to meeting her and buying her book (and getting it signed, of course).  The event is 6:30-9:00 and includes wine, water, and hor's d'oevres.  It's great fun and costs $25/person.  You end up with at least one book and a whole lot of fun.  Go on Kepler's website if you are interested in attending.

4.   Finally, I'll just give you the dates and authors for our next 3 RBC events:

     a.  Tuesday, March 24 - C. Lee McKenzie, author of The Princess of Las Pulgas, our
          1st YA (young adult)

     b.  Wednesday, April 22 - Christine Z. Mason, author of Boundaries:  A Love Story

     c.   Tuesday, May 12 - John Billheimer, author of Dismal Mountain

As they used to say - That's all she wrote.

Friday, February 6, 2015

I Am a HUGE Jodi Picoult Fan. Her Latest, Leaving time - Not That Great.

For the 2nd book in a row, I have had a somewhat disappointing reading experience.  1st, it was Garth Stein's latest, A Sudden Light.  Now, it's Jodi Picoult's most recent, Leaving Time.  If you remember, Jodi's previous novel, The Storyteller, got a 4/4 from me.  In fact, I said it's my favorite Picoult ever!  But this one is just okay.  Why did I have a problem with it?  Let's start, as usual, with a synopsis.

For over a decade, Jenna Metcalf obsesses on her vanished mom Alice. Jenna searches online, rereads journals of the scientist who studied grief among elephants. Two unlikely allies are Serenity Jones, psychic for missing people who doubts her gift, and Virgil Stanhope, jaded PI who originally investigated cases of Alice and her colleague. Hard questions and answers.  

Interesting premise, right?  Yes and no.  I don't want to give any story lines away.  But I can tell you this:  Do you remember when Haley Joel Osment, in the movie Sixth Sense, said "I see dead people?"  Well, that's how I felt in Leaving Time.  But instead of it enhancing the book, it actually detracted from it - IMHO.  You'll have to read it to understand.

What other problem do I feel the book has?  The main subject of the book is elephants. And although I learn a lot about elephants, I actually learn much more than I want to know.  Wasn't it only a few books ago that Jodi focused on wolves?  In fact, it was Lone Wolf.  And now we've got elephants.  Too much for me.  And a bit boring.  2.5/4
At least there was a reference to One Direction early in the book.  This is my granddaughter Haley's (she's almost 10) favorite musical group.  She knows everything about them.  In Leaving Time, it's a 13-year old 8th grader that mentions them.  It does seem as if every book lately mentions something that I can relate to my friends or family members.  That's always fun.

Still in all, I liked it reasonably well.  I wouldn't say skip Leaving Time.  But I would suggest you lower your expectations.  This is not the typical outstanding Picoult.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Garth Stein's A Sudden Light is no The Art of Racing in the Rain - but It's Decent

A few years ago, I read The Art of Racing in the Rain - even though a dog was on the cover!  I normally avoid any book that has an animal in it.  Perish the thought!  However, I was browbeat(en) into reading it.  And I was really glad I did.  It turns out that Racing was narrated by the family dog.  And I found it very poignant.

So I was pretty excited about seeing Garth Stein a few months ago at Rakestraw Books, in Danville.  And I was equally excited to read his latest book, A Sudden Light.  I have to say that I was a bit disappointed.  It was okay.  In fact, I ended up giving it a 2.75/4 only because the last 75 pages were so strong.  Otherwise, it would have been no higher than a 2.5/4.

Oh, what is this book about, you ask?  Here you go:

When a boy tries to save his parents’ marriage, he uncovers a legacy of family secrets in a coming-of-age ghost story by the author of the internationally bestselling phenomenon, The Art of Racing in the Rain.

In the summer of 1990, fourteen-year-old Trevor Riddell gets his first glimpse of Riddell House. Built from the spoils of a massive timber fortune, the legendary family mansion is constructed of giant, whole trees, and is set on a huge estate overlooking Puget Sound. Trevor’s bankrupt parents have begun a trial separation, and his father, Jones Riddell, has brought Trevor to Riddell House with a goal: to join forces with his sister, Serena, dispatch Grandpa Samuel—who is flickering in and out of dementia—to a graduated living facility, sell off the house and property for development into “tract housing for millionaires,” divide up the profits, and live happily ever after.

But Trevor soon discovers there’s someone else living in Riddell House: a ghost with an agenda of his own. For while the land holds tremendous value, it is also burdened by the final wishes of the family patriarch, Elijah, who mandated it be allowed to return to untamed forestland as a penance for the millions of trees harvested over the decades by the Riddell Timber company. The ghost will not rest until Elijah’s wish is fulfilled, and Trevor’s willingness to face the past holds the key to his family’s future.

There's not much more I can tell you.  But here are a couple of my personal observations:

1.  I thought it was cool to learn that the guy who is the namesake for King County, Washington, William Rufus King, was President Buchanan's paramour.
2.  Garth gives too much description, like Andy Weir, author of The Martian.  The difference is that The Martian was a much better book.  Weir made me care about the characters much more than Garth did.
3.  I did get 2 more personal references.  On page 8, Mystic, Connecticut was mentioned.  I really liked the movie Mystic Pizza.  And on page 23, one of the characters mentions elbow skin.  It just so happens that my kids loved my elbow skin when they were growing up (on Urban Dictionary, it's called a weenis).  I would put my right arm over the back of the front seat while driving.  They took turns grabbing my elbow skin and making sculptures out of it.  I'm not making this up, I swear.

That's it, people. 

P.S.  In person, Garth Stein is extremely engaging and very community-oriented.  I really enjoyed him a lot. 

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Great News for RBC Author, Natalie Baszile

Yesterday, I was just minding my own business (yeah, right!), and I got an email from one of our members, Susan S.  She sent me the link to an article about our December RBC author.  It turns out that  Queen Sugar, by Natalie Baszile, is being turned into a TV series by none other than Oprah!  Are you kidding me?  Oprah will produce the series for her network, OWN.  And Ava DuVernay, who directed Selma, will write and direct the show. Those of us who got a chance to meet Natalie at Recycle were blown away by her.  She was not only really interesting, but she was also just a delight to talk to.  It is very exciting for us book club members to see Natalie's book being made into a TV series.

Now, if you didn't get a chance to see Natalie at Recycle, you have a couple more opportunities here in the Bay Area.  Your 1st shot is this Friday night at 7:00 at A Great Good Place for Books, located in the Montclair district of Oakland.  I've only been there once, but it's where I met Beth Hoffman, one of my favorite authors.  So I've got very good memories of the store.

The 2nd opportunity to see Natalie is on February 23.  Janet, who is one of our founding RBC members, is having Natalie at her house for her book club meeting.  Janet asked Natalie a couple of months ago to come talk to her book club.  And the time has come.  It just happens to be a bonus for Janet that Natalie is coming after getting such great news. And, by the way, Janet welcomes all of you to attend the meeting.  If you are interested, then comment on this post, and I will put you in touch with her directly.

Here's the link to the article.

Oprah Winfrey And 'Selma' Director Ava DuVernay Team Up For A Series

One of the most powerful people in television is teaming up with a top-notch film (and TV) director to create a new series based on the novel Queen Sugar.
Read this story 

And, P.S., I reviewed Queen Sugar back on Aug. 28, 2014.  And the review was glowing.