Sunday, February 9, 2014
Don Tillman, a genetics professor, has Aspergers, which isn't funny. Yet author Graeme Simsion uses Don's challenges with social skills and awareness to create moments that just make you chuckle throughout the entire novel. Except on page 10, when I howled. Here's what Don said--and what he thought--while filling in for a colleague at a lecture:
"A woman at the rear of the room raised her hand. I was focused on the argument now and made a minor social error, which I quickly corrected.
"The fat woman--overweight woman--at the back?"
Don thinks he just dodged a screaming bullet of insensitivy! Whew. Who wouldn't want to be recognized as overweight rather than fat, right? Well, that slayed me.
Don is such a uniquely developed character. He's highly-functioning, rule-abiding and obsessively organized about his food, his exercise, his sleep, his work. And perhaps as a result, has only two friends. He had three, but his elderly neighbor is now in a nursing home and doesn't recognize him anymore. Even Don knows he's reached a time of his life where things need to change. He should find a 'female life partner."
The hunt for a wife, via "The Wife Project," begins. His best friend Gene sends Rosie to meet Don as a joke because she was so obviously out of Don's target group. She drank moderately, declared herself a vegetarian, wore make-up and was late for their first date. So many flaws. But Rosie, a beautiful psychology student at the university where Don teaches, actually has a project of her own. She's trying to identify her biological father. Don's got the skills Rosie needs, so the two buddy-up. And before too long, Don starts to make an effort to relax a few rules and reprogram his instincts to plan and arrange and organize and obsess. Is he finding love as well? Is Rosie? You'll have to read the book to find out if "The Wife Project" and "The Father Project" find common romantic ground.
The Push from the Book: For someone comfortable speaking to strangers and making new friends, reading about a character who struggles in the social arena made me stop to think about that particular dilemma. Friends are such a big part of my life. I cannot fathom them not being there. Simsion, I think, did a great service creating this character so we can better understand what life is like for a person with this disorder.
Saturday, February 1, 2014
Seasoned mystery readers probably know all about Mosley and his war-weary protagonist Rawlins, but this first book in the series was new--at least to me--and quickly turned addictive. I loved Mosley's writing. His descriptions of neighborhoods brim with gritty detail, and the characters appear instantly within your mind because he's painted them with bright, vivid colors. I bolted through the book, turning the final page before I wanted to give it up. There's no doubt that I'd travel with Mosley--and Easy--again.
But be warned. You will encounter the violent, unsavory underbelly of Watts on these pages, and Easy's got to wade through it all while hunting down the whereabouts of beautiful, blond Daphne Monet. Daphne's gone missing (along with a lot of money) and all Easy's got to do to earn $100 is locate her for the cool, pale-eyed guy who walked into the bar on the first page. Considering Easy's just been laid off and has bills to pay, it's a job too good to refuse. His search takes us inside bars, pool halls and nightclubs, and we meet the people who inhabit Easy's world--some of them more dangerous than others. And the longer he hunts for Daphne, the more trouble he meets--both on the street and inside police interrogation rooms.
Dead bodies keep showing up and Easy seems to be around most of them. The bad guys don't like Easy's questions and the police are convinced he's a strong suspect in several of the murders that crop up each day. Easy can't catch a break until his best friend Mouse appears to provide some much needed back-up. Despite the cute, sweet sobriquet, Mouse is always ready to rumble and kill if he has to. But he's got Easy's back and arrives in the nick of time to protect our hero. And just to insure that you won't put down the book, Mosley throws in a neat little surprise about Daphne that I never saw coming. Nifty bit of deception.
The Push From the Book: I'm ready for another installment with Easy Rawlins, and I'm going to read them in order. Next up: A Red Death.
Friday, January 31, 2014
The lure of vintage clothing, a 100-year-old diary, and vivid recreations of turn-of-the-century New York City were too much to resist. I had to read Astor Place Vintage. After The Grapes of Wrath I needed a palate cleanser, so I fell for a bit of time travel and boutique shopping. Works for me.
The book was a quick read, and I relished the tale of two New York women: Amanda, the modern-day shopkeeper who sold vintage treasures, and Olive, the aspiring department store buyer from 1907 whose life went from riches to rags overnight. Despite the century between them, Amanda and Olive are connected. And it all begins with a diary Amanda discovers inside a fur muff. It's part of a stash of promising retro-wear belonging to 98-year-old Jane Kelly. It's there she starts reading about Olive, a young woman just moved to New York where her father manages the new Woolworth's. Her apartment at 29th and Madison has all the luxuries a young woman could need: hot and cold water, steam heat, electricity and long-distance telephone. Very posh.
Olive dreams about following in her father's footsteps and plans for a job as an assistant buyer. Although she's got plenty of experience, she hesitates asking her father for a reference. He'd never approve. Author Stephanie Lehmann lays the foundation of feminism early in the book as Olive faces one obstacle after another--all gender related. There are restrictions and limitations everywhere--from lodging and clothing choices to job prospects. Bad news for someone who just wants to be a successful working girl.
After only a month in the city, Olive--for reasons I can't divulge--finds herself on her own. She can't live in certain apartment buildings without a father, brother or spouse. Just wouldn't be proper. There are more personal struggles, too. She's driven to know about her body and sex and reproduction, but has no one to speak to--Olive's mother died in childbirth--and few written resources to consult. Lehmann does a good job defining the times here. Really, how did a young woman in 1907 learn the ways of the world? Did anyone ever speak candidly about, say, how to avoid pregnancy? Olive struggles with these topics throughout the story and often the medical information available to her and other women of the time is contrary to the facts as we know them today.
Amanda's issues in the modern day were just as vexing. She's battling insomnia, trying to keep her business afloat and presiding over a love life that is far from secure or fulfilling. During her sleepless nights she alters and repairs old clothes for her store while reading Olive's diary.
Anyone intrigued by life in the Victorian age will certainly be amused by all the references to life in the early 1900s. I was absorbed by all the descriptions of everyday life of the period. New York City's busy streets, its architecture and amusements were great fun to read. I also enjoyed reading about Olive's life as a shop girl and how she spent her time away from work. I admit that I found the chapters devoted to Olive and her friends more interesting than Amanda's life. Considering what Olive had to overcome, Amanda faced less struggle, at least to me. Her life was bumpy, for sure, and not without its challenge. I just think Olive's resolve was more appealing.
Push From the Book: It would be too predictable to write how this book made me appreciate my life as a 21st century woman, with all our access to information and opportunity. That message comes through loud and clear during most of the book. I don't need to repeat it here. I was originally hooked by the idea of reading about vintage clothes. I'm attracted to them and their lines, colors and shapes. But behind the retro fabrics and designs, there are stories. Who wore this? When? How did this dress make her feel? I'll think more about those questions next time I tie my mother's old scarf around my neck or pull on a pair of her gloves. The concept of stepping into another person's life via their clothes strikes my fancy.
Friday, January 24, 2014
This list is fun to click through. I read a few of them, like the John Le Carre classic above, but perhaps it's time to switch things up. There are more than a few "never heard of that book" selections here and some that I've always wanted to try. Many of them seem to invite that trench coat, film noir vibe. Enjoy your time in the literary shadows!
Friday, December 6, 2013
Every once and awhile I contact an author for a little e-chat, and after recently finishing the exotically themed Teatime for the Firefly by Shona Patel, I thought I'd give it a shot. I wanted to know more about her life on those tea plantations in Assam, India, and about her publisher, Harlequin MIRA. Harlequins were the romance of choice during my teen years, and I can thank my tea-drinking Nana (who must have read them in between soap operas) for introducing these light stories to me. They hooked me on reading, but after a few years I moved on from Harlequins to more serious fiction. Forty years later I wanted to revisit the books I knew as a beginning reader. Patel's book didn't resemble those slim, red-covered paperbacks that were piled beside my bed.
Patel was sweet and obliging, although she was busy working on her second novel. Here's what she had to say---
1. I'm confused about your publisher--Harlequin MIRA. Teatime seems so different from the books I read as a teen. They were formulaic and predictable--exotic setting, girl meets boy, girl hates boy, girl and boy kiss (or maybe more), girl and boy doubt their emotions, brood, but unite for a happy ending. Your novel was crafted with far more skill than stories I read from Harlequin in the 70s. Are we talking about the same publisher or just a new phase in its publishing life?
You are not alone in this, I get this question all the time. I have often received the comment, "Teatime is not your mother's Harlequin," so I guess it does come as a surprise to readers, but not in a bad way. My editor Susan Swinwood once said to me not so long ago that Teatime for the Firefly was changing people's perception about Harlequin and more specifically about romance. That's amazing.
Harlequin has several imprints and yes, most of them are focused on romance like you describe. MIRA Books is the literary imprint of Harlequin and offers sophisticated, issue-driven editorial, the kind of novels book clubs like to discuss.
2. But Teatime does have a strong romantic component. Does that make you a romance writer?
No, I don't see myself as a romance writer per se. My books fall more in the literary fiction/women fiction category. As for the Harlequin label: I am not sure how much labels count anymore. In this age of social media, book sales are reader driven. Readers will arrive at their own judgment no matter how you categorize a book or who publishes it.
3. You lived on an Assam tea plantation, and I'm guessing your vivid descriptions of life there were drawn from your own experiences. Did you feel isolated as a child or were you distracted by the beauty and the wildlife? Did you attend school there?
I spent the first 15 years of my life in the tea plantations of Assam. I had a very carefree childhood surrounded by rivers, forests and fields. I don’t think I ever felt isolated or lonely for a single moment. My education was a problem as there were no regular schools around, so when I turned 10 my parents packed me off to a private boarding school like the other tea garden kids. The school was 300 miles away, and we came home twice a year for holidays. I loved boarding school and had tons of friends, many of whom I still keep in touch with. I remember my boarding school days as some of the best years of my life.
4.The term "tea garden," which pops up frequently in the book, is such a delicate term compared to the reality of monsoons, rogue elephants, snakes, insects. How long did your family live there and did you ever feel like you resided in a hostile place?
A. The term “tea garden” is rather misleading, I agree, but that’s what tea plantations in India are called. Most people imagine “tea gardens” to be small, picturesque tea farms when in reality they are sophisticated, industrial scale undertakings, employing thousands of people. Their location in the dense rain forests of north-eastern India often makes life unpredictable and dangerous, but I have come to believe a tea planter’s job attracts a certain thrill-seeking personality with a thirst for adventure. My father was a tea planter in Assam between 1941 and 1974, after which he retired and became a tea consultant in the city of Calcutta, where life was staid and predictable. I think all of us missed the tea gardens when we lived in the city.
5. The book jacket explains that you're a trained graphic designer. How--and when--did you make the leap to writing novels?
A. I started working in advertising and graphic design right out of college (1984: yes I’m old!!) and I wrote Teatime for the Firefly on the side a few years ago while I was still working. I only became a full time writer when I signed a three-book deal with Harlequin MIRA.
6. How long was the story for Teatime steeping inside your head? Have you always wanted to tell the story of tea plantation life?
A. I’ve always wanted to write a novel set in the tea plantations of Assam. The story evolved organically in the writing process. I started out with a premise and had some idea how the story was going to end. Then all I did was set my sails in that direction. It’s quite fascinating really, how stories shape themselves, sometimes in marvelous and unexpected ways.
7. Did I read someplace that you live in Arizona? How did you land there?
I came to Arizona after getting married to my husband. We’ve lived here since 1995.
8. 'Fess up. What kind of tea do you drink? For those of us who love tea, what should we be looking for when we buy?
No surprises there, I am a die-hard Assam Tea drinker. My first choice is CTC Assam which is a strong, black tea. You can buy it as loose tea from specialty tea shops. I get my private stash (which I guard very stingily) shipped to me from India. I brew the tea in a pot and take it with milk and sugar. Once in a while I’ll throw in some fresh ginger and cardamom to give it that Indian chai taste. When I run out of loose tea, I use tea bags. I have a high caffeine tolerance (probably genetic) as I drink Assam tea several times a day. It is what I wake up to every morning and it’s the last thing I drink before I go to bed at night. If you want to try Assam Tea look for any packaged tea in stores labeled as English Breakfast Tea. This is typically a blend of Assam and that should give you an idea of the taste and flavor.
Monday, November 25, 2013
She was pleasant but a tad ditzy, walking around town in technicolor tights and dresses, content with her waitressing job at the Buttered Bun, a local coffeeshop. He, on the other hand, was an A-lister from London. Big business guy, extreme adventurer, handsome, worldly and sophisticated.
But now he--Will--is in a wheelchair, and she---Louisa--needs a new job and has limited options. Unless working in a chicken processing plant or being a pole dancer can be considered choices.
Louisa, Lou for short, and Will meet. She will be his companion for six months. And so it begins. A love story unlike any I have read before.
Yes, I expected these two unlikely souls to get together at some point, but their journey as a couple is quite remarkable. This is not a cutesy, love-at-first sight tale. In fact, they don't really like each other much at first. Will is morose and detached from everything and everyone from his previous life and makes Lou's job miserable. Seems like she'll never break through.
Over time, though, the two adjust. There are ups, downs, good days and bad. Big challenges and tiny victories for them both. With simple outings Will slowly starts to engage in life again, and Lou gets a taste of the world outside her little village. While she becomes a new friend and social director, Will assumes the role of teacher as he pushes Lou to try new music, new food, new books and movies.
All very copacetic, agree?
Not so fast. Although confined to a wheelchair, Will is a man of action, and he's got a plan. Although he can't feed himself, get dressed, bathe or travel without assistance, he can still choose how he will live these next few months and how he may--or may not--end it all.
And so it continues. Can Lou make life worthwhile for Will? Will she find enough stimulating trips and activities for him to balance out the monotony and melancholy and infections and fevers and hospital stays?
I loved Lou's conviction. She researched. She made a calendar. She planned. And Will came along and enjoyed the ride. And six months passed. Decision time came.
I stayed up well past midnight last night to see how it all turned out. Very few books have that power for a woman who gets sleepy at nine, but there's no way I could have waited until the next day.
Jo Jo Moyes is some storyteller! The book moves quickly but leaves a mark. It's more than a love story, although that's a big part of the last quarter of the book. Bigger than the couple's growing friendship and affection was the question it raised about how we live. Do we push? Do we step outside our boundaries? These are questions that pop up in many books that I read, but somehow this story with these characters made me think more carefully about how I answered them.
The Push From the Book: Public libraries can't get every book in the universe. No library can, which is why we're lucky to be a part of a library system. Bethel Tulpehocken Library did not have this book, assigned reading for me as part of a book club selection. I borrowed it from Sinking Spring!
Know this: more than 16,000 books and materials circulating to library users in Bethel come from OTHER libraries in our system or state. If you want a book that's not on our shelf it doesn't mean you have to go out and buy it. Ask someone at the circ desk to find it for you. Or you can go online and select the book, which will be shipped to Bethel. So easy. So convenient. Sharing is a good thing.
Friday, November 8, 2013
Shona Patel, author of Teatime for the Firefly, grew up on a tea plantation and recreated her richly green home turf, Assam, India, as the backdrop of a tender love story. For tea-drinkers like me who relish a soothing cuppa to start--or break away from--a busy day, this book was like making a pilgrimage to tea Eden, all from the comfort of home. Patel dropped me inside the 1940s world of a bustling tea plantation and never skimped on the details: wineglass-shaped tea bushes growing in "waves and waves of undulated green," ebony-skinned tea pickers with colorful saris and thick pewter bangles, "pale lilac orchids sprouting from mossy armpits in branches."
Halfway through I was so enthralled I went online to investigate tea plantation vacations. And there's a nice choice available, just for the record.
Since finishing the book I'll appreciate each sip a bit more than I did before. Tea may have the reputation as a soothing drink that invites quiet contemplation, but life among the Camellia assimica plants was rugged business back then. Encounters with man-eating leopards, venomous insects, rogue elephants, rhinos, even ghosts, were common. Is such a place the right place to cultivate love? That's the question that lingers as you move through the story.
Maybe the tea plantation is the perfect place for Layla and Manik Deb. Earlier she was convinced she'd be a spinster because she was born beneath an unlucky star. Though highly educated, Layla believed her destiny was predetermined by her Hindu horoscope. So it would be impossible to move forward with former Rhodes scholar Manik, the handsome friend of her grandfather who is already engaged.
Unbeknownst to Layla, Manik formulates a plan to escape the marriage and create a new life--not as a civil servant, but an assistant manager on a remote tea plantation. How they finally marry and flourish amidst the steamy jungles in a company bungalow kept me glued to each page. This, after all, is a love story, and the romantic in me enjoyed the flowering relationship in a world full of beauty and adversity. In addition to the natural world's obstacles, there was plenty to fear among the wives of the British managers employed by the tea company. They were an aloof, petty lot and rarely made Layla feel like part of the crowd. But they were minor threats compared to the upheaval underway in India at that time. As British colonial life ebbed, clashes between Hindus and Muslims became more prevalent and increasingly violent. Not even the tea plantation's distant location could insulate them from the discord, and both Layla and Manik's lives were interrupted--and threatened--during the turmoil.
The warm, exotic feel of the book evaporates as Patel recreates this difficult period in India's history, but since her characters can't escape it, neither can we. How they responded during the crisis and its aftermath is a testament to her characters' deep connection to their souls and each other. It warmed me, just like a good cup of tea.
The Push From the Book: I'll visit those tea vacation websites again. It's a dreamy thought, to visit that part of the world so faraway and different from my own, but Patel planted a tiny seed inside me. And it's starting to sprout. Visit India? You never know.