Sunday, August 30, 2009

On Writing, by Stephen King

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
by, Stephen King
(2000), Scribner
288 pages
ISBN: 978-0684853529


For decades, Stephen King has delighted reading audiences with his shocking tales, powerful prose and frighteningly realistic characters. In the late 90s, King sat down to pen a book on how he became the writers that his is, the lessons he learned and how others can become better writers. After several long years – and a near-fatal encounter with a van – King completed On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.

I’m going to just come out and say it - if you are a writer, you must read this. It is both inspirational and educational. It is typical Stephen King bluntness as well and really cuts to the heart of what it takes to be a writer and why you shouldn’t fear writing what you believe in no matter what other people think about it. Successful writers are successful because they are passionate about what they write – not because they are trying to make a buck. This is not a point-by-point how-to book on writing novels. There are plenty of those out there and most of them will bore you to tears. What King offers is a look inside his writing methods and some hard-won insight into what works and what doesn’t in the publishing world. It is divided into several sections. The first gives a history of his writing career that is so funny I was laughing out loud more times than I can count. It is also includes a painful account of the drug and alcohol addiction that nearly killed him and the loving intervention of his wife, Tabitha. He then goes into the tools that a writer needs to develop to do the things that a writer needs to do. The third section is really the meat of the text and shows the methods that King uses to develop a story from idea to finished manuscript. The final section is a very personal account of the horrific accident that nearly ended his life and how the lifelong devotion of his wife Tabitha and his writing – specifically finishing this memoir – contributed to his return to life. On Writing is a much a deeply personal memoir as it is a dialog on getting the most out of your writing. It is a book that I will read again and again as inspiration for my own writing. I recommend it to everybody, but most especially to every aspiring writer. If this story doesn’t send you to your keyboard with renewed motivation, you probably want to find a new pursuit.

One final note – my copy of On Writing was an advance reader copy. Yes, it’s been hidden away for nearly ten years and this is the first time I have read it. The strange thing is that I have no memory of how I ever received the ARC in the first place. It still has a postage-paid return card with it, too. Either way, I’m not parting with it and I will be rereading it quite often I’m sure.

You can read more of my reviews here.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Watership Down by Richard Adams

I last read Watership Down more than 25 years ago, but it obviously stayed with me as it came to mind when I was thinking up recommendations for the Book Wizards. This is a group of book-loving young adults with developmental disabilities, of which my oldest daughter is a member. I have the good fortune to be a facilitator, and although it’s not my month to lead the discussion I decided I wanted to join in anyway.

So I dug out my copy of the novel, which dates from the 1970s. It doesn’t have the cover shown here, of course, but this was the closest to mine. I was slightly offended at the way the blurb on this cover implies that the writer is American! I wouldn’t be surprised if the editions sold here in the States have been Americanized, a horrible fate suffered by so many British novels. Get the British version if you can.

This is a deeply English book. NOT British, there’s a distinction - yes, I know our island would fit neatly into a corner of Illinois, but it matters to us. It was published as a children’s book, because it’s about bunnies. Never mind that these bunnies are more adult in their thinking processes than the average adult TV watcher, or that they spend their time fighting, killing, mating, or thinking their way out of harrowing dangers. Bunnies are for kids, right?

Oh no, dear reader. By the time you get through this fascinating story you will have a new respect for the common English rabbit. This is “nature red in tooth and claw” indeed. You may also be reluctant to read this one to your six-year-old as a bedtime story.

The plot isn’t too complicated, though. A group of rabbits, led by a buck called Hazel, leave their warren because his friend Fiver, who is psychic (an odd concept for a rabbit, but it moves the story along) has predicted disaster. After a terrifying journey, they set up a new warren on Watership Down. Then it occurs to them that they’re all MALE, and off they go to get’em some women. Unfortunately said women belong to a warren run by the horrendous General Woundwort, and he isn’t going to give them up easily. The resolution of this dilemma will keep you on tenterhooks, promise.

Richard Adams began writing this book when he was 50 (there’s hope for us all yet!) and the writing clearly springs from a deep well of experience, reflection, and familiarity with the classics of literature. You’ll also find many of the marks of a man who was born in 1920 and fought in the Second World War, including, regrettably, the clearly held belief that females are good for breeding and homemaking and not much else. Still, if you can put up with that in The Lord of the Rings, you can put up with it here.

This is one of those books that should make more reading lists than it does, especially if you're looking to improve your writing style (which will be 8% more elegant after reading this book.) It’s superbly written, exciting, and often profound. So grab a nice cup of tea and a scone, and curl up by a roaring fire with this English classic.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
By: Stieg Larsson

2008 Knopf Publishing (first published in 2005)

ISBN13: 9780307269751

465 Pages

didn't like itit was okliked itreally liked it (my current rating)it was amazing

"The international publishing sensation"

Now with an introduction like that, a girl's gonna have some high expectations, no?

I first saw this book at my local bookstore. It was in the front and obviously heavily marketed. Interested, I did more research on the book and found that it was recommended by many people and that it was, as the inside flap indicates, an international phenomenon.

And I have to say is that I can see why.

The book is by a Swedish author, who died in 2004 just after submitting the manuscript of this book and its sequels (the book is apparently part of a trilogy). It was translated into English and the original title of the book was Men Who Hate Women. After reading the novel, I can see why Larsson chose that title; it describes the book pretty well.

The story is about a missing girl from a wealthy and well-to-do family in Sweden. Forty years later her disappearance is still a mystery, the case unsolved. Enter Mikael Blomkvist, a down but not out journalist hired to solve the mystery. Together with the help of part goth / part punk, young, genius hacker Lisbeth Salander, the duo tries to solve the mystery. That's the story in a nutshell, but there are many elements to the story.

For one, the book reads like a hybrid between The Di Vinci Code and the movie Seven in that the crimes are in relation to Biblical verses/stories. That adds an interesting twist to the story, while simultaneously grounding it in a reality many can relate to and understand.

Also,the original title alludes to the victim of these crimes: women. Its interesting because I never thought of Sweden as being this place with high levels of crimes against women, but Larsson cites disturbing stats on the percentage of crimes done against women, committed by men.

One thing I would warn though, because the crimes are against women (or maybe because I also happen to be a woman), some parts in the book may be disturbing to read, and isn't for everyone. It was disturbing for me, but I've read and heard of such incidents before so it wasn't too much of a surprise, but if you've never encountered something like it, be prepared to be shocked.

The one good thing about this book is that it is suspenseful, it is a page turner. Larsson's intricate details illuminate his complex thought process and attention to every little iota.

One "negative" thing might be that there is a great deal of financial talk in the book, but it's not so much that someone not into financial jargon couldn't understand it. However, some still might get bored or tempted to skip. Don't! The details are important to the story, reread passages if you need to, but read it nonetheless.

Overall it was a good book. I wouldn't say great, because some scenes were so disturbing, but overall a well thought-out story. The whole time I was reading it I kept thinking, "this would make an awesome movie" so i'm keeping my fingers crossed! I'm looking forward to reading the sequel :)

America, America by Ethan Canin

America, America
By, Ethan Canin
(2008) Random House Adult Trade Publishing Group
ISBN-13: 978-067945680
344 pages


This story, while beautifully written, is difficult to classify. Is it a historical fiction piece? Is it a murder mystery? A coming-of-age story? A political diatribe? A rags-to-riches yarn? Actually, a title as broad as America, America is fitting because it takes on all of these things at once. The shocking part is that it actually works. It doesn’t feel like a reach. In fact, it works quite well by employing something rarely used anymore – the art of subtlety.

The characters - beginning with the first-person protagonist, Corey Sifter - are exceptionally well done. You really do feel that you know them so well - feeling what they feel and sensing what they sense. It is a remarkable art of character development that Canin successfully uses to pull the reader in. In addition to that, he employs a master’s touch of laying out the atmosphere of Western New York - from its culture to the look of the trees and the heaviness of the air. The book is as much art as it is story. As someone who grew up in Erie, Pennsylvania, I can tell you that Canin’s portrayal of that part of the country is spot on. While some reviewers had a problem with Canin jumping back and forth in time throughout the story, I think he did a great job of leading the reader through it without needing to resort to labeling each change with a date. In fact, the layered structure makes the story more powerful and interesting than if it had been laid out chronologically.

Canin also does a wonderful job weaving the fictional Senator Henry Bonwiller into the actual Presidential campaign of 1972. He was able to insert his candidate in among the real-life history without tearing it all apart – an admirable accomplishment in itself. It felt organic rather than shoehorned. Anyone interested in writing historical fiction should pay particular attention to how this story does it so well. However, nobody reading this book is going to have any trouble figuring out which side of the political aisle Ethan Canin falls on. I’m an independent thinker and I like it when writers provoke me to reassess my own beliefs, but it is certainly not lost on me that the book was released in the middle of a Presidential election season. I don’t mind authors inserting issues they find important into their fiction, but frankly, Canin gets a bit carried away and beats the reader over the head with it, especially near the end. It is the one flaw of the book that it feels like a bit of a rant and sticks out from everything else. I don’t mind the message, but a bit of a softer touch might have blended better with the rest of the story.

The political pandering of the book notwithstanding, I really don’t have anything bad to say about the story. It’s not a thriller or a murder mystery. While elements of both are in the story, they are really just another form of scenery. And while there is little real action or dramatic tension, I never felt like the story dragged. That says something for the writing, because that is no easy feat. The real story is the assent of Corey Sifter and how he grows to understand all of the people involved in his life, although sometimes painfully late. America, America does a beautiful job of showing just how the coming-of-age of a young man might look within the womb of a struggle for national power. His ultimate lesson is that he has to learn how to learn - and it is a neverending struggle. This is certainly a book worth reading, if for no other reason than to enjoy the rich characters and lush scenery. There is a lot to experience in this book – you almost need to read it more than once to take it all in. It certainly has its place on the shelves of any reader looking for an artful, character-centered book filled with beautiful prose.

I do have one complaint, however. It’s not with the story, but it is with the book itself. I don’t know when it became fashionable for publishers to make the page edges roughed up and out of line rather than smooth, but please stop it. It doesn’t make the book nicer or ‘classic.’ It just makes it really hard to turn the pages and sheds little paper flakes all over the place. If you want the book to have an expensive, classic feel, focus on the binding and using high-quality paper. Leave out the alignment gimmicks, they really don’t work. On the plus-side, the cover art chosen was fantastic.

Read more of my reviews here.


One of the funniest books I've ever read.

Pete Tarslaw plans to exact revenge on his ex-girlfriend by becoming a famous novelist and overshadowing her at her own wedding. So now he just has to write a best-seller--which, of course, anyone with half a brain and a talent for b.s.-ing can do.

Here are some examples of Pete's competition from a list of bestsellers Hely made up:

Blow. On a deep-sea exploration vessel, an oceanographer falls in love with a trained dolphin.
They Play Red Rover in Heaven. A grouchy old man discovers the afterlife is a lot like the summer camp he tried to have closed.
And here's a sampling from a list of things that happen when Pete gets drunk at his ex-girlfriend's wedding:

Declared myself to be an amateur chef. By way of demonstration, poured vodka all over Lucy's sea bass. When she protested, proclaimed that her palate was "unrefined."
Not only is the story hilarious, it leads to some surprising revelations about the sincerity with which authors write books ridiculous enough to be called Kindness to Birds and The Jane Austen Women's Investigators Club. Fans of the very funny Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris will love it.

Grove Press, Black Cat (July 8, 2009)
Amazon link

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


In 1915, a young mother named Dorothy Trevor Townsend starves herself to death in the name of women's suffrage, leaving her two children orphaned in England. In an unchronological, scattered, but deeply probing narrative, this Dorothy's family is followed from 1898 to 2007, through her daughter, Evelyn, granddaughter Dorothy, great-granddaughters Carolyn and Liz, and even great-great-granddaughter, yet another Dorothy.

The title derives from a couple sources. First, it is the title of a lecture the first Dorothy listens to when she is at Cambridge, studying at Girton college despite the fact that women have been forbidden from receiving degrees. But also, the book is just that--a short (very short, at fewer than 250 spaciously typeset pages) history of the women of one family, boat rockers all. It is also in many ways a history of 20th century feminism, with a lot of reminders of things we've tried--suffrage, starvation (for petesake), refusing to marry, marrying, embracing science, disliking husbands on principal, rap groups, divorce as protest, protest as protest--and the many ways each generation does its best to overturn the advances of the previous. The family is very human, likable and unlikable in their various ways, their stories both extraordinary and relatable.

I liked the book for what it was, brief, glancing, poignant but unindulgent. I wonder if I would have liked more. Walbert left many--in fact, all--loose ends untied, but I can't protest too loudly, since I'm not sure any of the loose ends bothered me.

Most strangely, I found many personal resonances in this book, stories that recalled my impressions of the women of my own family, despite the fact that the historical, cultural, and socioeconomic details are hardly related. I think there is a lot to be derived and learned from what is a relatively quick read--well worth it.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Manual of Detection, by Jedediah Berry

The Manual of Detection
By, Jedediah Berry
2009, The Penguin Press
278 pages
ISBN 978-1594202117

There are plenty of hardboiled detective novels on the market with more coming out every day. But with his debut novel, The Manual of Detection, Jedediah Berry charts his own course with a unique twist on the classic detective mystery. For starters, it is told from the point of view of Charles Unwin – a clerk to a famous detective – who is promoted to detective against his own wishes. While he doesn’t come right out and describe the world that Unwin exists in, it becomes apparent that this isn’t the world that we know. It is more like film noir in an alternate universe. It felt as though Mickey Spillane met the Mad Hatter in a Quentin Tarantino production. Needless to say, this isn’t your normal, everyday crime story. However, while its quirkiness will scare some readers away, I found that Berry’s writing made the journey very appealing. His language creates vivid images and his characters are well developed and easy to become attached to. It is very easy for the reader to become Charles Unwin and the story moves along at a nice, quick pace. As I said, this story is not going to appeal to everyone and I wouldn’t want to read a steady diet of these kinds of mind-bending stories, but it was fun to experience something quite unique and considering this was a debut novel, I think it is an example of an amazing writing talent. Jedediah Berry is certainly an author to keep an eye on in the future.

One final note, the hardcover book is beautiful and doesn’t have a dust cover. Instead, all of the art is printed right on the cover and looks and feels beautiful. I hope that this is something we see more of from the publishing industry in the future.

You can find more of my reviews here.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Child 44 - Tom Rob Smith

Hailed as a great debut novel, and nominated for numerous awards, for which it won the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger for Best Thriller of the Year for 2008, as well as being on the long list for the 2008 Booker prize, Child 44 is a thriller like no other. Combining a murder mystery amongst the backdrop of Soviet Russia, Smith's book is both intriguing and frightening.

This book was recommended by a few people, including my sister, who claimed the book took off from the first page. She wasn't lying. The story takes off literally from the first page, and that is always a promising start to any novel. While the story was always interesting and detailed, I personally don't think it picked up in "oh my goodness what the heck happens next??!" intensity until about halfway into the book, maybe a little before that. It's not that its boring, but maybe there was just a little too much setting up of the scene, so to speak, that I was kinda like, ok lets get on with it. Once it picked up, it REALLY picked up, and the last 10 or so chapters flew by so quickly that before I knew it I was done with the book.

One complaint I've heard is that the book fizzles at the end. I have to disagree, I think that the ending was fine, maybe predictable, but fine nonetheless. Perhaps its also due to the fact that I knew a sequel was out (The Secret Speech), so any questions or qualms I might have had were not there; had I not known about the sequel they might have been.

Besides the crime story (because it is a murder mystery case/story), I think the real gem of the story is the detailed look into Soviet Russia. Its appalling at the level of paranoia and survival the citizens had to live through each and every single day. The psychological elements of Soviet Russian existence was tremendously intriguing.

Overall the story is very good, I like the author's prose, his voice, his pacing. I love how he can tell the story from different perspectives; even in the same scene with two characters, we get to hear what each is thinking and feeling. It shows the depths of human character and how everyone interprets things differently. It played beautifully into Smith's underlying theme of psychology in Soviet Russia.

Oh, and it doesn't hurt that the murder story is based off of a real person and case: Andrei Chikatilo, aka The Rostov Ripper. Although Smith's rendition of the story is less intense than reality, its nonetheless a creative one that will leave readers shocked at its depth and simplicity.


~ English translation by Reg Keeland

By now, you have probably heard of Stieg Larsson, a Swedish businessman/journalist who dropped off three manuscripts with his publisher. He died of a massive coronary before seeing the first novel, "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" was published. This is the second book of a three (four?) part series, and it is my personal belief that you must start from the beginning with the first book to follow along.

Part of the reason why I loved the first book was its "murderer in one room" or "Clue" aspect. It also introduced fascinating characters. The second book continues with Salander, but she and Blomkvist are no longer together. In fact, she does not want to have anything to do with him. However, she soon needs his assistance when she is declared the only suspect in a triple-murder.

What a relief to finally learn about Salander's background, which was only toyed with in the first novel. Now, we understand her reasoning, though it is often based on her own moral code. However, this book had such a plethora of new characters that it became frustrating for me to keep track. After much flipping back and forth, I would hope to rely on written clues, but I was disappointed several times.

Perhaps most frustrating of all is the obvious plug for the next book. The ending is jumbled, needing the quick, clean proficiency of Salander and Blomkvist - together - to fix everything.

2.75 out of 5.0 Snowballs.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Down Around Midnight by Robert Sabbag

Just before his 33rd birthday, when he was, as he says, “half-famous” because his first book, Snowblind, had become a bestseller, Sabbag was on his way to Cape Cod in a small turboprop plane. Due to pilot error, the plane came down in a thickly wooded area. The pilot paid for his mistake with his life, but the co-pilot and eight passengers survived.

So this short (214-page) memoir is about the crash, looking back over a 28-year interval during which Sabbag just tried to get on with his life, coping with the physical aftermath of extensive injuries and the psychological trauma of being a survivor. As Sabbag relates, the incident cut his life into two: the before and after phases. Not surprising, really.

Memoirs, of course, are all about the great I, and therefore usually come across as a bit narcissistic. I don’t think Down Around Midnight is an exception to the rule. Still, there’s a certain fascination in knowing what it’s like to survive a plane crash, especially if, like me, you board every plane with the absolute certainty that it’s going to drop out of the sky. The story begins with the crash, and ends with the scar left in the woods where the crash happened, a fitting metaphor for the scar that cuts across the lives of the people on board. Sabbag explores both the causes of the accident and the bond that exists between those passengers and rescue workers who are able to deal with talking about it; not all are.

I suppose that if you’re involved in a traumatic incident, and you’re a writer, sooner or later you’re going to deal with that incident in writing. I have the impression of a man who knows his time on this earth is finite and needs to face the defining moment of his life once and for all; but for all that, there’s a certain defensiveness and pushing back in the text. At those moments, the writing becomes brash and journalistic, not at all to my taste.

Sabbag is at his best when he’s being honest about his ongoing emotional reaction to the crash, in particular his guilt that he may have exacerbated the injuries of the passengers he insisted be removed from the plane, afraid that it would catch fire. Once he reaches that admission, something seems to be released and the writing just takes on a deeper and more personal tone.

There were points in this book when I felt that I was only continuing with it because it was short and because I wanted to review it. It sometimes seemed meandering, and the variations in writing style were a little off-putting. But the last twenty pages or so redeemed it for me.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


In a tiny seaside town in New England, neighbors and strangers go about their daily lives, facing the everyday dramas of dulling marriages, secret love affairs, difficult parents, difficult children, loneliness, old age, and even some more dramatic challenges: anorexia, hostage situations, suicide attempts, shoplifting, hunting accidents. Through all these associated short stories--each one of which is quiet but powerful, and each of which successfully stands alone--one character recurs: Olive Kitteridge, formidable town English teacher. Many stories are about Olive herself, but even in only the tangentally related stories she's bound to make an appearance at a piano bar or pass through a restraunt foyer.

While the book is fairly quiet, the strength lies in the careful detailing of the changes as characters move from middle age to age, which is one of the most provocative themes throughout. Olive herself is a "crusty" Down East type, and one that reminded me at many turns of my own New England schoolteacher mother, to whom I have now given my copy, which she is (reportedly) greatly enjoying.

Elizabeth Strout--I discovered, after much careful perusal of the needlepoint font on the copyright page--wrote these various stories over the past 20 years. The earliest story in the collection was published in 1990, and others have been published in other magazines since. It amazes me that she stuck with her town and a loose cast of characters through all those years--perhaps that is why the short stories are as finely tuned and convincing as they are.

I liked this book a lot, and recommend it as a satisfying read. For a short story collection, there was remarkable forward propulsion, and I was eager to keep reading (they way I would feel about a novel). I also think that perhaps I wasn't the target demographic--my mother, I think, is--and yet I enjoyed it very much.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Boat, by Nam Le

The Boat
by, Nam Le
Knopf, (2008)
288 pages
ISBN: 978-0307268082


Nam Le’s debut novel is, in fact, a collection of seven short stories beginning with what appears to be an autobiographical account followed by six fiction pieces. Le flexes his hefty writing muscles right from the start. His command of the language is poetic with every word providing power and stimulating all five senses. The versatility of his voice allows Le to alter his style with each story, providing the feel of seven unique authors rather than one author telling many stories. However, while the stories are beautiful to read, they often wander and I was left feeling like I was missing the last few pages of a couple of the stories. In several, the plot is so secondary to the imagery that it felt more like I was reading assignments from a literary writing class that had been cobbled together rather than a coherent story. In spite of this, his characters are so engaging and his visuals so powerful that I was willing to forgo storytelling for awhile just to enjoy the artfulness of Le’s words. I became very attached to each one of his characters - their dark personas and darker circumstances. If any of these stories had been novel-length, the storytelling would have become tiresome. However, the short story format allowed Le to produce artful prose without boring the reader. While I really enjoyed The Boat for providing a rare piece of writing that lives comfortably in the sparsely populated land between the nations of fiction and poetry, it left me both delighted and disappointed at the same time. I’m hoping that this is just the beginning of a long career by an obviously gifted writer. If you are looking for a polished, plot-driven thriller, The Boat is not going to be your cup of tea. But if you are interested in reading something visceral – something that will take you someplace you have never been before - you should give this book a try.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Why Socrates Died: Dispelling the Myths by Robin Waterfield

Another book that fits into my summer project of Reading Outside The Box, i.e. trying new authors and new genres via a cross-section of newly published work. In a very manageable 204 pages, Waterfield's Why Socrates Died opens with Socrates’ trial and death by hemlock, then takes us into the backstory of the Peloponnesian War and the social changes wrought by Athens’ eventual defeat, and finally presents his theory of why Socrates stayed in Athens and accepted death when he could so easily have escaped.

As I know very little of Socratic thought and ancient Greek history, this subject could easily have proved difficult to follow. So I was impressed by the clarity of Waterfield’s writing and the easily understandable structure of this book, which made it possible even for an amateur historian like me to gain a fair amount of understanding of a very far-off world.

I didn’t learn much about Socrates himself, though. The larger-than-life character in this book is Alcibiades, Socrates’ pupil and, possibly, toyboy. Socrates himself seems rather pushed to the margins; this is a book about his environment rather than the man himself. I don't think that this detracts from the book, though; in fact it has piqued my interest to learn more about Socrates.

Waterfield is scholarly, engaging with other historians and discussing their theories in contrast with his own. Yet I never really had the impression that I was reading a piece of historical scholarship; the narrative flows well, and he follows the delightful contemporary practice of making his notes almost entirely inconspicuous. I did get a bit bogged down in the description of the war, but then I always have trouble following political narratives when the players are not well known to me.

I thought that the book really came into its own once the account of the war was over and we returned to the time of the trial. Waterfield makes some truly interesting comparisons between Socrates’ day and American history of the 60s and 70s. From the jacket photo I would say that he’s slightly older than me, which makes him a true Boomer (whereas I am on the cusp) and explains why this comparison comes so naturally to him. He also made some remarks that got me thinking about our own “democracy” and recent history.

Waterfield’s final theory is only a theory, and he doesn’t try to sell it as the only solution to the mystery of Socrates’ death. Still, I found it plausible and neatly put. Altogether an excellent book: highbrow without being inaccessible, nicely structured and well edited. I got through the whole thing without once being annoyed by the writing, which is rare for me.

THE NAMESAKE - Jhumpa Lahiri

Ashoke and Ashima are Indian immigrants in America, trying to balance the life that they left with the life they now lead (with Christmas decorations and trips to the school). The main character is Gogol, their son, who had to be named before being allowed out of the hospital after his birth. Their custom is to have a family name and a "good" name. Gogol's name becomes both, which begins the novel with the tension of something never being completed or perfect - simply in between.

Eventually, Gogol changes his name to Nikolai, believing it easier to live as an American, yet never truly feeling as if he fits in. Later, his father tells him the reason he was named Gogol, which only increases the feeling of alienation and solitude.

As the reader follows Gogol throughout his life - a paragraph that covers a year, twenty pages to cover a date - it is apparent that this story is not really about Gogol at all. It is about finding a way to bring two lives together, two cultures closer, and/or two understandings amended. It is about finding the medium that makes one, if not happy, at least content.

With such depth in the first half of the book, I expected the same from the rest, but the author leaves it to the reader's imagination. I'm still trying to figure out how I feel about this novel, but I did appreciate the extensive depth of detail.

3.5 out of 5.0 Russian Bears.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Sharon Moalem/HOW S*X WORKS

(Disclaimer: this review won't use any "naughty words." Not to be coy, but to keep this page from becoming a flystrip for the unsavory, I'll make use of asterisks here and there. But I can do nothing about the subject matter itself. If you're liable to take offense at exposure to information and opinions about human s*xual nature, please don't let yourself be exposed to it in the first place.)

An author can't go wrong, I'd guess, by including the word "s*x" in his or her book's title. It helps if said author's bio mentions appearances on CNN and The Daily Show. It helps if some of the blurbs on the cover are by the authors of books whose own titles include The G Spot and The Technology of Org*sm.

Still and all, by the time you finish How S*x Works: Why We Look, Smell, Taste, Feel, and Act the Way We Do, you may be left wondering: what the heck kind of book did I just read?

Consider the chapter titles, which include such as these:
  • Girls Just Want to Have Fun
  • I'm So Excited and I Just Can't Hide It
  • Let It Be
  • Jagged Little Pill
  • Good Vibrations
These pop-culture-driven chapter titles said to me -- especially considering all the sure-fire gimmicks cataloged in the first paragraph of this review -- that the book would romp playfully through its subject matter. I'd probably encounter a lot of sly jokes and puns, and a certain amount of the old Monty-Python wink-wink-nudge-nudge sort of provocation.

Er, well, no.

From the Introduction:
We're here to explore human s*xuality from beginning to end – what we like and why we like it; how it makes us feel; how it can go wrong; and how human intervention, through cultural traditions, scientific discovery, or both, can divert nature's path – across history, geography, culture, gender, and orientation... how s*x works.
What Dr. Sharon Moalem (yes, he's a doctor: a neurogeneticist (!) and evolutionary biologist) says in that paragraph sounds encouraging. He's going to cover it all, isn't he? In less than 300 pages, at that. It's gonna be concentrated. All right, you think.

But then there's the small matter of how he says it. A single 300+-word sentence, multiple independent clauses, and not a whole heck lot of Anglo-Saxonisms. The whole thing fraught with em dashes, semicolons, and even an ellipsis to boot.

And -- I can't help noticing this sort of thing -- this is his opening sentence. The grabber. The sentence that he and his editors sweated over more than any other.

The problem plagues How S*x Works for most of the remainder of the book. Although this is far from an academic treatise of the topic, it's not a book whose contents you might find excerpted in (say) Esquire or Cosmo. Carrie Bradshaw will not be citing it aloud, musingly, in Sex and the City II. So if that's what you're hoping for, keep hoping.

Still, the book's content is interesting -- here and there, very interesting.

The first couple of chapters cover the physiological basics, for women and men, such as how our bodies change with puberty, the mysteries of pubic hair, and bre*st and p*nis sizes. (Bet you didn't know how the latter is typically measured, in studies of such things, to ensure consistency. Let's just say the combination of relaxation and stretching sounds positively yogic.) Moalem discusses the hydraulic stuff here, too: fluids (where they come from, where they go, why they go there instead of someplace else), how things fit together (or don't), the basic propulsive mechanics.

For me, the best chapter in the book -- and not just because I won't have to use asterisks to write about it -- was the third, "I'm So Excited and I Just Can't Hide It." This chapter deals with the rules of attraction: how our bodies tell us just who, exactly, will turn our heads.

When Mom or our good friends counsel us that opposites attract, they mean psychological and/or emotional opposites. Intellectual types may hang out with intellectuals, but they can't help being diverted by the scatterbrains. Artists lie down with logicians, social butterflies with wallflowers, the strong-willed with the wimps. Yes, that may (or may not) be true in the long run. But what catches our eye in the short?

It might be more accurate to ask, What catches our nose?

Moalem reports on several varieties of what he refers to as "the T-shirt test": studies which neutralize, as much as possible, the effects of odors other than an individual's own, and test the responses of people exposed to the resulting "pure" odor.

The first of these studies asked a group of men to go without using any normal deodorants, aftershave lotions, colognes, or other such products for forty-eight hours. (The researchers gave them odorless soap and aftershave; this wasn't going to be a "B.O. test," after all!) During that time, the men were to wear T-shirts for two nights in a row. Afterward, about the same number of women were asked to rate the attractiveness of each T-shirt.

The result wasn't what might be obvious. Women didn't consistently choose T-shirts which smelled "good" in any conventional way, or even those which simply didn't smell "as bad." Rather (emphasis added):
Time and again, volunteers were more attracted to the smell of shirts worn by men who had immune systems that were somewhat different from their own... especially a group of very important genes that make up a key part of our immune system: human leukocyte antigen system, or HLA.
Got that? What drew the women to one T-shirt or another turned out to be something that most of us didn't even know existed. ("'HLA'? Que?")

Moalem doesn't cite a study of a directly analogous T-shirt test in the opposite direction. Instead, he discusses one in which women (likewise "deodorized") slept in one T-shirt during the most fertile part of their menstrual cycles (days 14-15), and in a different one on days 21-22, when they weren't actively fertile:
Sure enough, when men were asked to sniff the shirts and pick their preference, they picked the smells from the fertile phases again and again... [So] women may be wired to sniff out men who will provide the right traits to give them the healthiest babies. And men in turn may be wired to sniff out women who are ready to make babies.
It's tempting to quote at greater length from Chapter 3, which delves into matters like whether gender preference as well as gender itself determines attractiveness, what babies find attractive in a human face, the role of symmetry in attractiveness, and what goes on between our ears neurochemically when we're shown a picture of someone attractive. (Did you know "what researchers have long known about faces -- when you blend the features of hundreds of random faces, the resulting 'average' face is inevitably beautiful"? I sure didn't.)

But in my view, good though that chapter is, the book loses steam thereafter:

There's another chapter about hydraulics. There's a lot of information about things which can go wrong, either with s*x itself or with the reproductive processes resulting from it. X and Y chromosomes, hermaphrodism, s*x hormones all take the stage. STDs come in for their share of attention, as does contraception (natural and otherwise).

For me, the problem with these later chapters was that none matched -- probably could match -- the sheer human interest of Chapter 3. (Neither could Chapters 1 and 2, but when I read them I didn't know what was coming next.) The tone and general feel too often trailed off into the dry and clinical, even when the information was (a) very current (as it often was), (b) based on the latest research, and/or (c) unfamiliar to me.

It's hard to care about molecules, lubrication, viruses, and genes when you've just wandered through more than 30 pages with your head in an aromatic cloud, y'know? Maybe those Chapter 3 pages just (ha ha) mysteriously smelled better to me.

But I don't think the answer is that simple, or that mysterious.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Mercury, by Ben Bova

by, Ben Bova
(2005), Tor Science Fiction
ISBN – 978-0765343147

Ben Bova - who has been writing science fiction for more than 40 years, including books such as Moonrise and Titan – continues his Grand Tour series about the colonization of the solar system with Mercury. The story begins in the late 21st century as three characters – Astrobiologist Victor Molina, “New Morality” Bishop Elliot Danvers and Billionaire developer Saito Yamagata – come to the scorched surface of the planet closest to the sun. Each has their own myopic agenda, but they are all unaware that they have been lured there by Mance Bracknell so he can avenge the rolls that the three of them played in his destruction a decade earlier.

The story really drags early on and it is difficult to have empathy for any of the characters. They are all uniformly shallow, egotistical and appear oblivious to what any of the others are doing. The second act goes back in time to try and explain where Mance’s wrath originated and the pace of the storytelling picks up a bit, but by then there was little chance to salvage any interest in what would happen to any of the characters. In the finale, Mercury makes a clumsy attempt to make some sort of moral statement of the responsibility of big business and the evil of religious zealots in a future where seemly everyone lives as extremists, but by then the whole story seems unimportant.

Even Bova’s usually engaging science fiction imagery seems to have been sacrificed in this installment. Maybe it was a product of the barren landscape of Mercury, but there just wasn’t anything interesting or unique about the world-building which is a prerequisite of science fiction writing. This book really failed to live up to some of Bova’s other writing and it was a struggle to finish. Mercury is not one of his best works.
Find more of my reviews here.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Bridges of Madison County- Robert James Waller

The Bridges of Madison County The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller My rating: 1 of 5 stars
I will preface all of this by saying that I don't generally read romance, so please don't be offended. And, everyone likes different things, so don't let my review taint you if you want to read this novel.
I hated this book. In fact, I think I would give it zero stars if that didn't seem too mean. I thought it was absolutely terrible.
Very basically the novel is about a photographer who goes to Iowa to photograph some covered bridges for National Geographic. He gets lost, meets a farm wife whose family is away at the fair and they have a torrid affair for a week, exciting all of the passion that she has never felt and all of the commitment that he has never felt. At the end of the week they part and return to their normal lives but never forget their one true love.
There are a wide variety of things that I disliked about the book, so I think I'll just list them. 1. I hate (HATE!) the writing technique where the "writer" has been approached to tell some story and then proceeds to tell it and wraps the whole book up with "well, that's their story." I don't care whether you were actually approached and commissioned or something to write this book. Don't tell me.
2. The actual story is so contrite. It's played and there wasn't enough plot to it. Really? Boy meets girl, boy can't have girl, boy and girl always wonder what would have been.
3. There is no depth to the characters. I hated the descriptions. If I had to read the female character describing her love as "hard" one more time, I might have thrown up. I didn't care about them. I couldn't relate to them.
4. Waller switches between points of view like a forth grader. I had a really hard time following whose head I was in. The reader is bounced around so much, I started to feel dizzy. The transitions aren't smooth. It wasn't well balanced between POVs either.
5. Waller also gets preachy at points. He had his characters spout off some long monologue that you can tell is just the author expressing his own viewpoint. It wasn't good and didn't feel natural.
6. The ending was awful. It ends with an interview of some random guy that knew one of the characters. No, just no.
Now, one might ask, if I thought this book was so terrible, why did I finish it? Because I thought it would get better. It was a bestseller. I honestly thought that something good had to happen in it. Nope, wrong. I really don't know how so many people purchased this book. My only guess is that there are a lot of desperate housewives out there.
As an aside, I got this book from my husband's bookshelf. It apparently was a gift or something. I knew he had read it and when I finished I tentatively asked him if he had liked it. Thank God he said it was awful too. If he loved this book, that might have been grounds for a divorce.

Shattered Sword, by Jonathan Parshal & Anthony Tully

Shattered Sword
The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway
by Jonathan Parshall & Anthony Tully
2005, Potomac Books
640 pages
ISBN-13: 978-1574889239


I first want to thank Moonrat for allowing me to post my reviews here. Hopefully you will enjoy them as much as I have been enjoying all of yours.

When most people hear the term ‘history book,’ they typically think of those watered-down texts we all read in high school where large swaths of time are melted down into paragraph-sized blubs to be memorized for a test and quickly forgotten. Even so, many of us – myself included – have become infatuated with history and long after leaving the public education system behind seek out books that provide a detailed look into a our past. These focused books can bring us a much greater understanding of an event and as a result, a greater understanding of present day events. But as time goes on, a consensus is usually reached by historians. Subsequent writings become nothing more than reaffirmations of earlier works. However, every so often new information is brought to light about an event that allows for a reassessment of the conventional wisdom. Shattered Sword provides just such a platform.

The Battle of Midway has been chronicled in books and films countless times in the sixty-six years since the battle between the Japanese and American navies during the Second World War. The summer of 1942 has forever been stamped as the turning point in the war in the Pacific and Parshall & Tully do nothing to discount its importance. What the do is provide accessibility to information – most notably large amounts of Japanese writings and documentation – and make them available to English readers in many cases for the very first time. One thing this book is not is revisionist history. If anything, it is a clarification of the facts of what actually happened and – more importantly – the chain of events that took place to bring about one of the most decisive battles in history. The most important result of all of the research is to throw into doubt the idea that the Japanese naval force was vastly superior to the Americans in every way and it was only due to luck and circumstance that the American navy was able to win the day. This is a view that was championed most notably by Mitsuo Fuchida – a Japanese naval officer who participated in the battle - in his book Midway: The Battle That Doomed Japan. This view has been echoed throughout the years, notably in the movie Midway, not just because of Fuchida’s first-hand knowledge and a lack of substantial documentation to the contrary, but because of our American love of being a victorious underdog. But by pouring through stacks of Japanese documentation, Parshall & Tulley are able to piece together a somewhat different account demonstrating that the two navies were far more evenly matched than anyone thought going into the battle. A combination of Japan’s poor military communication, the limited training of the Japanese ship crews, the flawed construction of their ships and their low opinion of the capabilities of the American sailor contributed as much to the outcome of the battle as the tenacity, daring and exquisite training of the American navy. Ultimately, overconfidence and poor planning all but doomed the Japanese navy before the battle even began. Sun Tzu would be proud.

The book provides a thorough view from the Japanese side to compliment the detailed American accounting of books such as Miracle at Midway. Throughout the book, Parshall & Tulley provide the reader an in-depth, well researched treatise. Better yet, they write it in such a way that the reader becomes a part of the events from the very first page all the way to the conclusion, taking you from the conferences of the Japanese leadership to the bridge of Admiral Nagumo’s flagship to the view from the water as a young sailor watches his proud ship go under. The result of this is a book that balances all the facts and provides a clear accounting of everything that led up to the most important single battle of the Pacific War while simultaneously keeping the reader engaged in the drama of the events. Not only is this the best, most thorough book on the Battle of Midway, it is one of the best written and researched books on the Second World War ever produced. If you are going to write history, Parshall and Tully have provided the roadmap on how to do it right with Shattered Sword. This book sets the bar extremely high for any future works on the topic. Shattered Sword is as good as history writing gets.

Friday, August 7, 2009

William Goldman/MARATHON MAN

When I was a kid, maybe eight or perhaps even younger, I strayed upon the torture scene in the movie Marathon Man on television in a hotel room while my family and I were on vacation.

I've never quite forgotten it, and I blame it both for my fear of the dentist and for a number of bad dreams I had after (as well as my interest in horror fiction), but I never saw the entire movie. Never even knew there was a book before I was an adult.

The book is now on my Project Fill in the Gaps list. It's completed, actually, ready to be crossed off before I go back to Hemingway's Farewell to Arms, a book where people seem to live in some sort of constant state of emotional strangulation. Maybe it's the booze. Or maybe World War II. But probably it's the booze.

Thomas Babington Levy, "Babe" as he's known to his brother, also lives a life of emotional strangulation, but it's the kind graduate students experience. He lives alone in New York City, where he attends Columbia University as a graduate history student. Every day he runs, training for a marathon that will probably never come, and every day he studies, but none of it brings him any real confidence because his father died when Babe was ten, ostensibly of a cerebral hemorrhage, and so Babe's brother, Doc, is forced to look after him both as a brother and a father.

But when Doc bursts into Babe's apartment, literally spilling his guts, dying, he unwittingly involves Babe in a conspiracy involving a Nazi in hiding, stolen diamonds, and a shadowy U.S. government agency called The Division. Without knowing why, Babe is plunged into a dark world of espionage with only his running skills and his wits to keep him alive.

This book marks a first for me. Naturally I wanted Babe to survive, but almost by the end, I didn't care whether he survived, only that he got revenge before he did. I suppose I didn't care because I could see why he didn't care. Here were people who took everything: his father (as it turns out, in their way), his brother, even his girlfriend. All I wanted for Babe was for him to kill Sczell and his associates and to get away. He didn't do both, but the end was still satisfying because it was true, if you see what I mean.

Yiyun Li: A Thousand Years of Good Prayers

A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, a short story collection by rising author Yiyun Li, paints a portrait of modern-day China, a country struggling to reconcile its tremendous past with the throbbing beat of the present. This struggle is illustrated in the intimate details we read about the everyday Chinese men and women who fill Li's stories: people who try to make the most of their lives despite loss, hardship, and a past in which they lived through the glory, pain, and eventual fading of communism. Some, like the gay character Han of "Son" and the recently divorced protagonist of the title story, have emigrated to America to find love and opportunity in a new land, to varying degrees of success. Others, like the old woman of the collection's first story, "Extra," are trying to find their place in the world after the fall of a familiar economic-political system places them in a new economic reality, leaving them confused and rootless. Li's stories are firmly planted in the China of the twenty-first century, but it's evident that tradition and the past exert a fierce influence on how these characters live their lives. A handful of themes--marriage, filial duty, socioeconomic ambition, among them--appear and reappear throughout the ten stories here, signifying some of the issues that remain important to the Chinese despite the momentous upheavals the country has undergone in the last century alone.

When I first read about Yiyun Li as an author who writes about the lives of Chinese and Chinese-Americans, my first inclination was to make a mental comparison between Li and Jhumpa Lahiri, who, of course, focuses on Indians living in their native land and in the United States. After reading A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, though, I'm not sure the comparison can go beyond the superficial. Li's stories are shorter, more direct; they don't have the extended, detailed quality of a Lahiri story in, for example, Unaccustomed Earth. On a deeper level, I also found Lahiri's stories to be more immediately impactful--there's usually a gush of emotion or reaction that I experience after finishing the last word of each Lahiri story. With Li, I ended several stories with either an ambiguous feeling, or would have to ponder what she might have been trying to say with the story I just finished. Li's stories may appear simpler at face value, but they require more active thought to process the deeper themes and messages that lie underneath the surface.

Another aspect I found while reading this collection is its hit-and-miss quality. I found myself fully immersed in certain stories that ended much too soon, whereas others didn't do as much for me. Overall, though, the collection offers an interesting look at modern China and is a good introduction to a writer whom we'll definitely see more from in the future.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Moonstone By Wilkie Collins

First published 149 years ago this compelling novel has the all of the ingredients of a serious and fascinating mystery. I did not know anything about Wilkie Collins until Dan Simmons wrote a novel based on the Charles Dicken’s novel about Edward Drood. Simmons used Wilkie Collins, a friend and companion of Dickens as the narrator of his story (“Drood”). Apparently Dickens and Collins collaborated on a few novels but Wilkie Collins, in spite of a heavy opium habit (due to poor health) was an able and strong writer himself. He is said to have created the first literary mystery detective as a major character in a novel when the detective appeared in “The Moonstone” as Sergeant Cuff of Scotland Yard. He also was among the first to use the device of having each of the major characters in the story start and narrate each chapter by telling the story, only, from what they actually saw and did and know.
It worked very well for this mystery about a diamond that was stolen from a temple in India by one of Her Majesties Officers and brought back to Britain along with the curse that was supposed to be attached to it.

Collins created wonderful characters and the dialogue and descriptions are very interesting and exciting. Like Dickens, Wilkie Collins toured America and gave readings; his writing was influenced by Dickens, I am sure and I would guess that Dickens may have profited from his association with Collins. This was an amazing read and a first rate mystery from an important writer of the time.

The Italian By Ann Radcliff

Ann Radcliff was listed as one of the most talented writers of the “Gothic Romance” genre of the late 18th century
Her prose and magnificent descriptions of the cities, country sides, people and the customs of the times, particularly the harsh dominance of the church and the inquisition easily carries the reader to the places and actions of the story. “The Italian” was published in 1797; Radcliff was contemporary with Sir Walter Scott and Jane Austen

The plot is simple; a titled young man falls in love with a young lady of unknown family. His parents, wealthy and powerful, strongly object to the liaison but the boy is steadfast in his infatuation. The young lovers, Vivaldi and Ellena continue to meet in secret but they are spied upon by the Black Monk, Schedoni, Vivaldi’s mother’s confessor. The Marchesa is concerned that the family name and status will be ruined if Vivaldi marries Ellena and convinces herself and the compliant Schedoni that the laws of Naples could be interpreted that ruination of a family should be punishable by death. The Marchesa becomes obsessed with this idea and asks the Monk to do the deed.

Ellena is kidnapped and taken to a far off convent where she is threatened and given the choice of immediate marriage to some one of her class or “taking the veil” and becoming a nun. Her trials and adventures at this strange place are exciting and frightening.

Meanwhile, Vivaldi and a servant companion set out to rescue Ellena; more trial and tribulations occur and when Ellena is, finally, found and a plan to remove her from the convent is formulated, Schedoni and officers of the Holy Inquisition show up and transport the star crossed lovers to Rome where they await the Inquisitors and the torture chambers.

In spite of the almost impossible situations, and the non ending descriptions of the mountains, the streams and the roads and the towns, the characters’ histories have been so well defined that the suspense will carry a reader to the final page. It is up to the reader to decide who the story was really about. This was a splendid tale.

Ann Radcliff wrote many novels; her best was supposed to be “The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) I want to read this.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Wonder Boys- Michael Chabon

Wonder Boys: A Novel Wonder Boys: A Novel by Michael Chabon

My rating: 5 of 5 stars Wow. This wasn't my first foray in the the wonderful world of Michael Chabon, but it was his first adult novel that I have read. I had previously read Summerland which is a fantastic Young Adult fantasy. I'd seen the movie version of Wonder Boys ages ago and loved it, so I was definitely excited to pick up the book. I had high expectations and Chabon exceeded them. In brief, Wonder Boys is about a college professor, Grady Tripp, who is also a bit of a has been writer. Tripp saw great success with his first couple of novels, hence the professor job, but has been unable to finish his thousand page epic Wonder Boys, due partly to his marijuana addiction, partly to his disastrous marriage and affair, and partly to the fact that he's just trying to cram far too much into this novel. When Grady's neurotic and addict editor rolls into town for the college's LitFest, the pair end up on an epic adventure involving a suicidal student, Tripp's ex-in-laws, a dead dog and a lot of drugs. While the plot of this novel is hilarious and well crafted, I enjoyed the writing the most. What I wouldn't kill to have Chabon's gift. He is a beautiful writer and each sentence is so melodiously crafted that they are hard to get out of your head. He finds uniques ways of saying things and his comparisons are superb. I would highly recommend this novel to anyone because it's a great book, but I would especially recommend this novel to writers. Seriously, study how this man crafts a sentence, a paragraph, a book. It's beautiful and lyrical. Well worth the read. View all my reviews >>

Sunday, August 2, 2009

WELL DESERVED - Michael Loyd Gray

Argus, a small town in Illinois, is the home of four substantial characters whose lives are intertwined in this driven novel. I often find myself putting books into one group or another: character-driven or plot-driven. This book is an intriguing mix of both.

Jesse, the small-time pot dealer, meets Raul, the just-off-the-docks Vietnam vet, both of whom are being watched by the new chief of police, Art, and the cashier at the market, Nicole. Yet this is not a novel as simplistic as that sentence. Each character is lovingly shaped through dialogue, other character's thoughts, and internal drives. With the strokes of immaculate detail, it is difficult to resist being pulled into their lives.

Personally, I liked this section: "But California really wasn't a place for Midwesterners. Not for very long, at least. Californians expected things to always be easy. Midwesterners knew what it meant to struggle and work for something. [...] One had all the weather and no sense, and the other was more grounded in reality and understood the changing weather to be just part of life's challenges." I am a product of both California and the Midwest, so this tickled me.

Gray's use of specific symbols and imagery create a postcard of small town America, one that pulls the reader through the pages with both smiles and a bitten lip.

4.3 out of 5.0 Sex on the Grasses.

OUTLANDER - Diana Gabaldon

I had the pleasure of meeting Diana Gabaldon twice during intimate lunches with other writers, and she is so passionate about her characters. In particular, she adores her hero, Jamie Fraser, and said (on both occasions) that she could never imagine any actor to portray him.

Recently, a screenwriter friend said that OUTLANDER, the first of an enormously popular series involving time travel, Scottish and American history, and a love comparable to the adult version of Bella and Edward (of TWILIGHT fame), was (finally) going to be made into a film. I remembered Diana's statements, so I re-read the book while vacationing to try to imagine who on earth could play Jamie Fraser.

If you are a romance reader, I need not review this novel. You read it more than a decade ago. You know that the latest addition is coming out next month. But for the rest of you, imagine a WWII nurse named Claire who is reunited with her husband, Frank, a historian/professor who has meticulously traced his heritage through the Scottish highlands. A chance visit to a rock circle during Beltane and she is transported a bit over 200 years into the past, where she gets to meet these famous relations who are rather more dark than "black sheep." Enter Jamie Fraser, dreamy red-headed romantic Scot, and you have a historical novel with a heap of good lovin'.

The next book is the "end" of the saga, so for those of you who have followed the series as I have, who do you think is the Scot that Frank meets on the street in this first book? I am interested in seeing how she wraps this up.

4.25 out of 5.0 Scotch Coolers.