Invisible City by Julia Dahl

July 22, 2014

Invisible CityRebekah Roberts never knows how to answer the question, “Are you Jewish?” It’s true that her mother was Hasidic, so by Jewish law, the answer is yes. But her mother also left her baby (and her Christian boyfriend) when Rebekah was just 6 months old. So now, at 22, Rebekah knows nothing of her heritage, her mother, or the faith that claims her; until, that is, she finds herself embroiled in a murder case involving a Jewish woman from her mother’s old neighborhood.

These days, Rebekah is a “stringer”, an on-call reporter for an NYC tabloid. Her job – show up at crime scenes and try to get the scoop on whatever the case of the minute is. This morning it’s the discovery of a naked woman on a scrap heap in Brooklyn.

When the police release the body to her family with very little investigation and no autopsy, Rebekah knows that something is up. Who has the power and pulled strings to get the NYPD to ignore the obvious murder of a young wife and mother? Why won’t anyone talk to either the press or the police? And who is Saul Katz, the (most of the time) Orthodox cop who says he knows who she is and that he knew her mother?

Pressing for answers, Rebekah finds herself struggling to understand the customs and faith behind an ultra-conservative and very insulated community that would rather bury the ugliness than trust outsiders with their business. And not all of Rebekah’s questions are about murder. Who are these people – her people – who recognize her, but are as good as foreigners to her?

Julia Dahl’s debut novel will keep the reader turning pages even as she lifts the veil for a peek at a society that few “goyim” (non-Jews) will ever glimpse much less understand.

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Half a King by Joe Abercrombie

July 21, 2014

Half a KingMove over George R.R. Martin, there’s a new author of grim, dark, and bloody Fantasy in town. Well, actually, Joe Abercrombie (Twitter handle: @LordGrimdark) lives in Bath, England, and he’s been publishing his brand of “grimdark” Fantasy since 2006,  so he is neither “new” nor “in town.” But, I still maintain that Martin better watch his back and keep pecking away at his DOS based word processor as Abercrombie gains in popularity – and readers. Half a King is the first in the new Shattered Sea Trilogy and is a gripping yarn and page-turningly good read.

Prince Yarvi features as the titular “half king” due to his deformed and crippled left arm, with which he can hold neither sword nor shield. That’s fine with Yarvi, as he never wanted to be a warrior or a king. He’s content to continue his studies with Mother Gundring to enter the Ministry (think adviser / lore master, not priest). However, Yarvi’s plans are greatly changed when his father the king and his older brother are both murdered by a rival king from across the sea. Yarvi must take up the circlet and cloak of the King’s of the Gettlanders and strike back against the treacherous Grom-gil-Gorm, king of Vansterland. Yarvi swears an oath by the six tall gods to avenge his father and kill those who mudered him. King Yarvi, his uncle Odem, and an army of Gettland warriors set across the Shattered Sea for vengeance. One of the best lines in the book is “I may be half a king, but I swore a whole oath!”

Those are just the beginning of Yarvi’s adventures as the young man who wanted to be nothing more than a Brother in the Ministry and one day advise his father and brother becomes a reluctant king. Soon, betrayal leads to desperate circumstances and unlikely alliances. Abercrombie does a wonderful job with his world building, especially considering that this is a fantasy novel that’s less than 300 pages long. There’s tons of action, much of it as bloody as in Game of Thrones, and some great characters that I hope return for the second book in the trilogy. So, if you’re bummed that we’re in between seasons of GOT on HBO, and that we still don’t know when Martin will finish writing the next volume in his epic Song of Ice and Fire series, then give Joe Abercrombie a try this summer.

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Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

July 18, 2014

Like Water for ChocolateWelcome to post-revolution northern Mexico, at the turn of the 20th century, the dry, violent land of Pancho Villa, on the border with the United States. Tita is the last-born daughter of a wealthy hacienda owner/widow; as the last-born daughter, her role is to remain unmarried to care for her mother, a nasty control freak who is destined to make Tita’s life as miserable as possible. Stifled in the kitchen and in her role as unmarried daughter, Tita manages to communicate through the food she creates. Any emotions she feels – anger, love, sadness–are conveyed in the traditional Mexican cuisine she prepares for her family. Tita is in love with Pedro. They wish to marry, but Tita’s mother squelches that idea and marries Tita’s sister Rosaura to Pedro. Tita is crushed, and the story chronicles Tita’s lifetime love for Pedro, most unrequited.

Esquivel is one of the best magical realism authors around, and she melds a captivating story that is rich in dialogue, character, and setting. Mexico City-native Esquivel worked in television programming before writing Like Water for Chocolate, her first novel. Her settings are especially evocative, and it is no surprise that the novel was made into a movie in the 1990’s. Esquivel is an effective observer of social roles of women, vis a vis the role of women in the Mexican home. The translation is full and one need not know anything about Mexican history or society to enjoy this novel, as the themes of family tension, love, and jealousy are universal, and the novel is not chock full of regional references; any references are fully explained, as in the history of the recipes that Tita prepares. This is an older novel, but one that I re-read every now and then because, like Tita’s cooking, it is rich and evocative.

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The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais

July 17, 2014

The Hundred-Foot JourneyReader beware: reading this book may cause extreme hunger, salivation and an extreme case of wanderlust.

As a boy in Mumbai, Hassan Haji grew up in his family’s restaurant. Food was his way of life and viscerally connected him to his mother. Because of religious strife, a fire destroys the restaurant and kills his mother. Very distraught, his father takes the children and flees India. His father still wants to be in the restaurant business,  but cannot seem to find a profitable niche. He eats his way across Europe until they end up in Lumiere, a quaint village in the French Alps.

Lumiere does not know what to do with the brash, Indian family. Hassan’s father decides to open a restaurant. Likeable and with a discerning palate, Hassan’s father wins over the locals through his loudmouth joviality. But he makes an enemy in famous, local chef Madame Mallory. She owns the respected restaurant across the street and is beside herself with anger at the tacky restaurant with the gaudy colors, loud music and foreign odors. Madame Mallory does everything she can to make the restaurant fail.

Madame Mallory is more distraught when she discovers that the son of this loudmouth has a wonderful gift. Hassan has a way with food and flavor. Madame Mallory believes this gift is innate. Her jealousy gets the best of her when she confronts the family and accidentally causes Hassan to be severely burned. After a lot of guilt and some time reflecting on her life and actions, Madame Mallory decides to take Hassan on as her pupil. Hassan’s father is adamant that this will not happen, but as we all know, Madame Mallory is relentless when she wants something.

And so begins a beautiful relationship that takes Hassan to the top of French cuisine. This is a delightful read that will warm your heart!

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The Magician King by Lev Grossman

July 16, 2014

The Magician KingConsider the smartphone. It can be used to stay in touch with people who are an ocean away. It can store an enormous library of books and the works of thousands of musicians. It can show the path to distant lands, record sounds, and capture images. Yet, is it considered near magical or is it taken for granted?

What if a reader could actually learn magic and enter a fantasy world? Would this bring boundless joy or would it all soon enough seem bland and uninspired?

In Lev Grossman’s The Magician King (a sequel to The Magicians), magic and discontent mingle and meet. After graduating from Brakebills, a secret college of magic, Quentin and some of his fellow magicians rule the magical realm of Fillory. This should be the happily-ever-after, but to Quentin, constantly dissatisfied, it is not. Something is missing, even as his wildest dream has come true.

He decides to go on a quest. Not a very dramatic one, but still. He commissions a ship and sails to the Outer Island to collect back taxes. While Quentin is there, he comes across a fairy tale about seven golden keys. The search for one of the keys accidentally (?) sends the king back to the miserable home of his parents on earth. He is not alone, though. By his side is Julia. She is a creature who once was a gloomy woman, desperate to attain the magician’s skills she felt entitled to (even though she had narrowly failed her entrance exam to Brakebills).

Julia has already paid the price for her quest – what will the price for Quentin’s quest be?

The Magician King is a journey to the heart of darkness of the fantasy genre. It is in part a tale of a desperate need to belong and the search for meaning. Lev Grossman may not be the heir of C. S. Lewis (as he is sometimes described), but he is certainly an author for our time.

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Charms for the Easy Life by Kaye Gibbons

July 15, 2014

Charms for the Easy LifeI have been purposely avoiding reading any of Kaye Gibbons‘ novels because I had met her during my college years in Raleigh and was not sure I could read them without preconceived notions. I have finally arrived at a maturity level where I can do so with a totally open mind. I jumped in with both feet, and never looked back. This book fit my criteria for a good read as I could not put it down after the first chapter.

Let me begin my review by recommending that readers first become acquainted with the layout of our beautiful state, North Carolina. It also helps to be knowledgeable about Raleigh and the distinctions of the older, surrounding neighborhoods near downtown. The author seamlessly weaves these locations into the novel. She was born in Rocky Mount and went to college in the Triangle. It was so easy to hear the southern drawl flowing right out of the dialogue. The story cannot be fully enjoyed without at least a familiarity of the key landmarks and major cities of North Carolina. The imagery just cannot be maximized otherwise.

Published in 1993, Charms for the Easy Life is Gibbons’ fourth novel. Her commercial literary success began with the award winning Ellen Foster. There is no doubt that this novel was also meant to inspire her own three daughters. It continues her tradition of creating strong female main characters: Charlie Kate is the no-nonsense grandmother and matriarch; Sophia is her rebellious daughter; and Margaret is the perfectionist granddaughter. All three show extraordinary independent spirit as well as quick wit and intellect. The time period of the novel covers 1910-1945. It was a time where these characteristics were neither attractive nor acceptable for a female. Charlie Kate and Sophia are both mistreated, deserted, and eventually widowed by their husbands. They show the world that they can succeed without having a man to hold their hand. Understandably, Margaret becomes overly cautious around males. Will she be an old maid? Read Charms for the Easy Life and find out.

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Bad Blood by John Sandford

July 14, 2014

Bad BloodWhen three deaths occur in a sequence… that’s not a coincidence! First Jacob Flood is murdered at a grain elevator by Bob Tripp, and since no one else was around at the time of the death, Tripp seems the likely killer.  When Tripp is taken into custody by Sheriff Lee Coakley,  she has no reason to suspect further foul play. But then Tripp is found hanging in his cell and it is quickly discovered that it was not a suicide.  Coakley becomes suspicious of a deputy, Jim Crocker,  and a trip to Crocker’s residence now finds Crocker dead, and now we do have three deaths, and are they somehow connected? Police do not believe in coincidence.

Coakley realizes that she needs outside help since one murder in ten years is more the usual for a small town like Homestead.  She asks the State for assistance and our hero, Virgil Flowers, is assigned to the case.  And to add one final twist, there was a murder a year ago just over the border from Minnesota in Iowa.  A teenage girl was brutally murdered and there may be a tie-in to the three deaths here in Homestead.

John Sandford is pretty good at putting a lot on one’s plate pretty fast, so you better pay attention.  Paying attention pays off quickly as Flowers and Coakley start to connect the dots.  But this is a fair warning–this book is not for the faint of heart! The first in the Virgil Flowers series is Dark of the Moon.

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Intuition by Allegra Goodman

July 11, 2014

IntuitionI picked this novel up because I’d heard that it offered a realistic portrayal of scientific research. So often in popular entertainment we’re given an exaggerated vision of how science is actually done—there’s either the mad scientist unscrupulously tinkering with nature to satisfy a god complex, or the hero who saves the day with a “scientific” solution that amounts to waving a magic wand. Intuition examines the ways ambition, personality,  and politics can influence research, but avoids painting its characters, and the effects of human fallibility on science, with broad strokes.

Marion Mendelssohn and Sandy Glass run a cancer research lab at the fictional Philpott Institute. For years their contrasting personalities (Marion circumspect and precise, Sandy bombastic and charming) have harmonized in a close working relationship. When one of their postdocs, Cliff Bannaker, begins demonstrating dramatic success in his work administering experimental cancer treatments to mice, Sandy wants to announce and publish the results before they’ve been fully verified to attract publicity and badly needed funding for the lab. Marion’s reluctance to engage the media prematurely begins to create cracks in their partnership. Further controversy ensues when Cliff’s fellow postdoc (and ex), Robin Decker, begins to suspect his results were falsified. How can Robin—not to mention her colleagues—be certain that her suspicions are not colored by personal resentment? Is she willing to pursue those suspicions at the possible cost of her professional future and her friendships?

Scientific discovery and controversy are usually reported in the news with all the subtlety of a banner headline.  (In the novel, the announcement and disputation of Cliff’s results are sensationalized and distorted by the media and grandstanding politicians). In contrast, Intuition tells a story in which both research and human drama proceed as they often do in life: turning points are quiet, revelation is gradual. Yet this is a highly engaging novel. Each of Allegra Goodman’s characters is memorable and relatable despite their flaws, and her sharp observations of them make those small moments resonate with great emotional power. I definitely plan to check out more from this excellent author.

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Mambo in Chinatown by Jean Kwok

July 10, 2014

Mambo in ChinatownCharlie Wong is stuck in a dead end job as a dishwasher at the restaurant where her father also works as a noodle maker. She’s tried other jobs, but they never last long because she is a disorganized klutz who makes a lot of mistakes. She has gotten up her nerve, though, and applied for a new job as a receptionist at a dance studio. Charlie would love to get this job because the studio reminds her of her mother, who died when Charlie was only 11. She was a dancer, and Charlie remembers a little of what her Mom taught her about dancing.

Poor Charlie. She gets the job, but she is not any better at being a receptionist than anything else she’s tried. She messes up the class schedules and irritates all the dancers. Just before she is going to be fired, though, she finds a hidden talent that is valuable to the studio: she is a good teacher. She may not be the best dancer, but she is really good with new students. The studio decides it would be worth keeping her on and training her to teach more classes.

Charlie becomes immersed in the life of the dance studio when she starts teaching. The more time she spends at the studio, the less time she has to worry about the other problems in her life. Her father is very traditional so she is not allowed to date and she even has to hide her dancing clothes from him. When her little sister gets sick, her father insists on trying ancient Chinese medicine instead of modern techniques. However, she keeps getting sicker and no one can figure out the cause of her illness.

Jean Kwok’s novel is an enjoyable tale of finding your true calling, and how every “ugly duckling” has a swan inside them. Charlie’s life begins anew because of a new job, but also because she finds her confidence. As her life away from home improves, Charlie finds the strength to face her personal problems.

If you like this novel, try Kwok’s first book: Girl in Translation.

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The Story of the Human Body by Daniel Lieberman

July 9, 2014

The Story of the Human BodyThe history of our bodies in terms of evolution, is a complex and fascinating subject. I have been intrigued since childhood, walking The Hall of Man at any natural history museum worth its salt that I could visit.

Daniel Lieberman is a Harvard professor of human evolutionary biology, as well as a gifted storyteller.  He tells the story of human evolution in a manner that is readable like a biography, and as compelling at times as any thriller. What made humans become bipedal? (Hint: to see over tall grasses!) Why did we move from hunting and gathering our food, to farming it? What aspects of our development contributed (and continue to contribute) to diseases that plague us?

Booklist, in its review, summed it up best as, “Like it or not, we are slightly fat, furless, bipedal primates who crave sugar, salt, fat, and starch.” We have large brains that require a lot of energy, and that drove most of our evolutionary process – the need to feed the brain glucose. Lieberman argues that humans are not meant to be farmers, nor to eat grains as a main sustenance. And that farming may be the worst thing that could have happened in our evolution.

I found the chapters on nutrition to be the most interesting and salient to our present day world. How our bodies have not really changed much since the Stone Age, but the world has become one of abundance and obesogens. Our bodies, which were designed for feast and mostly famine, are now living in a world of fast food. Lieberman addresses this and more.

Lieberman is a talented popular science writer. What could have easily become mired in jargon is explained for the layperson. He unfurls a story of our ancestors that compels the reader to want to explore more.

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