31 December 2010

Imprint Friday: Benny & Shrimp by Katarina Mazetti

Welcome to Imprint Friday and today's featured imprint: Pamela Dorman Books. Stop by each week to be introduced to a must-read title from one of my favorite imprints. I know you'll be adding many of these books to your wish list.

You may have heard about Benny & Shrimp by Katarina Mazetti because many book bloggers reviewed it in July 2009. What you might not know, is that it is a Pamela Dorman Book.

Here is the publisher's summary:

An international sensation, this addictively readable tale asks the question: Why is it so impossible to get a relationship between two middle-aged misfits to work? The answer lies in the story of Shrimp, a young widowed librarian with a sharp intellect and a home so tidy that her jam jars are in alphabetical order; Benny, a gentle, overworked milk farmer who fears becoming the village's Old Bachelor; and an unlikely love that should not be as complicated as it seems. Reminiscent of the works of Carol Shields, this quirky, humorous, beautifully told novel breathes new life into the age-old conundrum that is love.
According to an interview with Mazetti, the story of Benny & Shrimp stemmed from a real-life event that occurred when she and her husband were living on dairy farm in northern Sweden. Mazetti's curiosity made her ask, What if? and from there the book was born.

I love the idea of second chances and of newfound love later in life. Benny and Shrimp are each cranky and quirky, easily irritated, and come from different social sectors of their town. They don't even like each other when their paths begin to cross. I wanted to know if and how the librarian and the dairy farmer mange to build a relationship and overcome their differences.
  • Dawn from She Is Too Fond of Books called "Benny & Shrimp . . . a thoroughly enjoyable love story."
  • Laura from I'm Booking It said: "I loved the main characters, and how they were both real, everyday people with real, everyday quirks."
  • Amy from My Friend Amy noted that "[t]he story is quite sweet in some ways, neither are terribly glamorous, just your everyday folk, bumbling along."
One fun aspect of the novel is that each chapter told from Shrimp's point of view opens with one of her poems. She may not be a prize-winning poet, but she seems to tell it like she sees it:
Life, steaming and messy,
I've got the better of it,
I put labels on it, seal it in folders,
and file it in the archive.
I somehow think that Benny, a bachelor farmer, doesn't have quite the same view.

Benny & Shrimp was an Indie Next pick for September 2009. The paperback edition includes the interview with Mazetti and a Reading Group Guide. Both raise several good topics for discussion. If you're looking for a fun quirky read this holiday weekend, consider downloading Benny & Shrimp to your new eReader.

This book was featured as part of my Imprint Fridays feature and my Spotlight on Pamela Dorman Books. For more information about the imprint, please read Pamela Dorman's introductory letter, posted here on December 3, 2010.

Benny & Shrimp at Powell's
Benny & Shrimp at Book Depository
These links lead to affiliate programs.

Published by Viking / Pamela Dorman Books, July 2009
ISBN-13: 9780143115991

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30 December 2010

Wrapping Up 2010 (Including My Top Reads for the Year)

This post highlights my reading life for 2010. I hope to get back in the habit of writing monthly wrap-up posts, but I make no promises.

I read and listened to a handful of books in 2010 that are not included in the following statistics because I haven't yet reviewed them. Those books will appear as part of my stats for next year. If my records are accurate, I read 118 books in 2010, but the following numbers are based on what I posted.

I decided not to include recipes or movie reviews because I think you are more interested in the books.

Some Basic Stats


Total reviewed: 113 books
First review was All Alone in the Universe by Lynne Rae Perkins
Last review was Dance to the Music of Time: Part 4 by Anthony Powell
Rereads (audio): The Lord of the Rings (including The Hobbit) and The Dance to the music of Time.
Female authors: 63
Male authors: 50

Challenges

Finished: 16
Ongoing: 3
Failed or abandoned: 8

My Favorite Photos

Of course I loved the photos from the round barn and many others I posted in 2010, but here are my four favorite Wordless Wednesday photos: 70 (sunrise), 71 (Brugge), 80 (New York City), and 98 (flower).

Popular Discussion Posts

Got Links? Or Where to Share
Thoughts: Mockingjay by Suzane Collins (Spoilers)

Exciting Projects

Top Reads in 2010 (alphabetical order)

And the Pursuit of Happiness by Maira Kalman (graphic nonfiction)
Embroideries by Marjane Satrapi (graphic nonfiction)
The Imperfectionists by Thomas Rachman (audio)
The Lords of Discipline by Pat Conroy (audio)
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson (audio)
Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay
Safe from the Sea by Peter Geye
Saving CeeCee Honeycutt by Beth Hoffman
Taroko Gorge by Jacob Ritari

Outlook for 2011

I don't have any real changes planned for 2011. I am looking forward to having fun with the challenges I signed up for and I'm thrilled to be working with four fabulous imprints so I can introduce you to books that I hope will make it to your reading list.

I have finally caught up on my major tasks for Audiobook Jukebox, which means I'll have more time to leave comments on the blogs I read.

Do you have major changes planned for your blog or reading schedule?

Happy New Year! Here's to a book-filled 2011.

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29 December 2010

Wordless Wednesday 110

Waterfowl, fall 2010

Click on the image to get the full effect. For more Wordless Wednesday, click here.

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28 December 2010

Review: A Dance to the Music of Time (Parts 3 & 4) by Anthony Powell

In October I reviewed the first two movements of Anthony Powell's saga A Dance to the Music of Time. As I mentioned earlier, I read the four volumes in the early 1980s and revisited them this year via the newly produced audiobooks. Today, I'll talk about the final two parts. Although I include no spoilers, I'll assume that you either read my earlier review or have read the first two books.

The third movement, sometimes called Autumn, covers the six years Britain was involved with World War II. Nick Jenkins, around whom the books revolve, has a noncombat assignment, but the toll of the war is ever-present. I think this is one of the best books I've read that captures the many random results of the war on ordinary British citizens. The effect is strengthened because we have been following the characters for almost 20 years of their lives.

Two areas stand out. First is how men and women are transformed by their newfound status as part of the British war machine. While some characters bask in their sudden positions of power, others accept that their prewar social standing no longer has meaning. The other aspect of the war that Powell nails, is the randomness of death caused by the Blitz. Chance decisions meant the difference between life and death. The person you had lunch with could be dead by dinner. Powell brings the war down to a personal level, and you won't soon forget it.

The fourth movement (Winter) begins just after the war and takes us into the early 1960s, when the world is once again seeing major social and political changes. In this volume, Nick Jenkins and his cohort are facing middle age. Some are settling into the comfortable years of their life, while others are going through midlife crises.

Soon after the war, it is clear to Nick that the UK will never be the same. What are the new social expectations and how will people in the arts manage to find a way to make a living? We meet new characters and find some old friends in surprising situations. This is a bittersweet ending to Powell's monumental work; people still dance to the music of time, though the tempo and steps and participants may change.

I highly recommend the entire series of books to readers who like character-driven works and to those who are interested in an exploration of England from the early twentieth century through to the brink of modern times. Read the books in print or enjoy them as wonderfully read by Simon Vance. As I say in my reviews for AudioFile magazine, Vance has the capability of bringing the characters alive while giving you room to form your own opinions of the individuals and to make your own emotional connections to the story.

Dance to the Music of Time: Third Movement at an Indie
Dance to the Music of Time: Third Movement at Powell's
Dance to the Music of Time: Third Movement at Book Depository
Dance to the Music of Time: Fourth Movement at an Indie
Dance to the Music of Time: Fourth Movement at Powell's
Dance to the Music of Time: Fourth Movement at Book Depository
For the Audible edition, click on the image in the sidebar.
These links lead to affiliate programs.

Published by University of Chicago Press, 1995 [originally published 1951-1962]
ISBN-13: 9780226677170 & 9780226677187
YTD: 112 & 113
Source: Review (audio edition) (see review policy)
Rating: A & A
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)

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27 December 2010

Facing the Final Challenge

I'm so happy that Darren from Bart's Bookshelf is hosting his fun challenge again. The Twenty Eleven Challenge asks that you read a book in each of the following categories:

1. To YA or not YA
2. With a Twist
3. Hot off the Presses
4. It Wasn't Me
5. Show It Who Is Boss
6. Babble Fish
7. Will Power? What Will Power?
8. Mind the Gap
9. Back in the Day
10. Way Back When
11. Slim-Pickings

To complete the challenge I need to read twenty books, at least one in every category. It's my choice on which categories will merit two books. Please see the sign-up post for full details.

And I believe that's it for me for 2011 challenges. There are some great events coming up, some very fun read-a-longs, and more terrific challenges. Unfortunately, I think my plate is full.

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25 December 2010

Weekend Cooking: Getting Organized for a New Year

Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. For more information, see the welcome post.

_______

Merry Christmas! Thanks to everyone who has helped make Weekend Cooking so much fun over the last year. This is my 62nd Weekend Cooking post.

I don't know about you, but I get a ton of food magazines. I subscribe to several titles and I pick up others at the grocery store or bookstore when something on the cover catches my eye. Unfortunately, magazines can quickly take over my house. The good news is that one of my favorite winter projects is to organize my recipes.

The first step is to tackle the pile of magazines, the bulk of which are food or wine related. Please tell me that I'm not the only one with a stack like this.

While I'm going though the issues, I rip out any recipes or articles that I think I may want to save. I'm not very discriminating at this stage, and I usually end up with a rather intimidating mountain of paper.

Once the magazines themselves have been ransacked and set out for recycling, I go through the recipes more carefully, saving only the ones I might really make and deleting the duplicates. Then it's time for organizing.

These days, I use small notebooks. I've had many systems over the years but the notebook rings and paper punch I bought from Levenger have allowed me to create my own cookbooks of a variety of thicknesses. They are also very easy to organize and open flat.

The system can be costly, so I use a variety of paper and dividers (some leftover from various day planners I tried in the past) that I convert to the Circa system with a special paper punch. I also have collected my supplies over several years, so I didn't make one huge purchase.

During the January nights when I add new recipes to my notebooks, I also take some time to look through the old ones, throwing out any that no longer appeal to me. Because I glue only one recipe to each page, it's easy to get rid of individual recipes and to re-categorize when the mood hits. I also keep one larger three-ring binder I use for saving entire magazine articles.

The only other system I use (not very faithfully) is Master Cook, a software program. I guess I'm just a bit old-fashioned, however, because I tend use my notebooks more than I use my virtual cookbooks. Wish me luck as I begin my yearly tackle-the-magazines venture.

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24 December 2010

Imprint Friday: Emily Hudson by Melissa Jones

Welcome to Imprint Friday and today's featured imprint: Pamela Dorman Books. Stop by each week to be introduced to a must-read title from one of my favorite imprints. I know you'll be adding many of these books to your wish list.

Melissa Jones's Emily Hudson was inspired by the story of Minny Temple, the real-life cousin of author Henry James. The time period is the 1860s and the setting takes us from New England to London to the Continent.

Here's the publisher's summary:

After the start of the Civil War, Emily Hudson--an orphan who lost her family to consumption and fever--finds herself the begrudged guest at the home of her relatives in Newport. Emily's longing to be an artist is dismissed by her puritanical uncle, who wants nothing more than to rid himself of her through marriage. Her only friend is her aesthete cousin, William, an ailing young writer. When a promising engagement to the eligible Captain Lindsay is broken, William rescues Emily from an uncertain future by taking her to England. Lonely and desperate to escape her cousin--once her confidante, now her obsessively controlling patron--Emily sets out alone to meet her destiny in the eternal city of Rome.

Reminiscent of the novels of Edith Wharton, Emily Hudson is an exquisitely told tale about a heroine struggling to be true to herself and [to] find love in a society where only marriage or an independent income guaranteed a woman the freedom to do as she pleased.
So much about this novel appeals to me: from its foundation in fact to its protagonist--a young woman trying to hold fast to her dreams. I also love that parts of the story are told in letters, a style I have always enjoyed. In fact, it is through a letter that we are first introduced to Emily:
It is with regret that I begin the task of writing to you about your niece, Emily. Her recent behavior, which I have outlined to you in previous letters--most specifically her unfortunate, extravagant friendship with a fellow pupil, Augusta Dean, and its unsettling effect on the other pupils, all girls entrusted to my care and to whom I owe a great duty--compels me to request that she be formally removed from the school and returned to your care with immediate effect. (p. 5)
And from there, we want to know what Emily did, why the schoolmarm is writing to Emily's uncle, and what will happen to the young woman once she's given over to her relatives. I am also interested in the portrayal of Emily's cousin William, who is loosely based on Henry James. This is a novel that will appeal to readers who like a strong female character, historical fiction, the epistolary style, and memorable writing.

Take a look at some other view points:
  • Amy Steele from Entertainment Realm says: "Outstanding research and scintillating physical descriptions makes Emily Hudson a truly stand-out work of historical fiction."
  • The Independent notes: "The psychological tension subtly takes hold of the reader and does not let go. This is a wonderful book and it will not disappoint."
  • Katherine Peterson from Fresh Fiction thinks: "Jones clearly has a talent for character development, an ability to set a scene, and realistic dialogue that enhances her characters' personalities."
For an interview with Melissa Jones, see BookRabbit.com. The reading group guide from the publisher includes an introduction and another interview with Jones as well as discussion questions.

This book was featured as part of my Imprint Fridays feature and my Spotlight on Pamela Dorman Books. For more information about the imprint, please read Pamela Dorman's introductory letter, posted here on December 3, 2010.

Emily Hudson at Powell's
Emily Hudson at Book Depository
These links lead to affiliate programs.

Published by Viking / Pamela Dorman Books, September 2010
ISBN-13: 9780670021802

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23 December 2010

Review: The Rabbi's Cat 2 by Joann Sfar

Last month I reviewed Joann Sfar's The Rabbi's Cat and liked it so much I immediately went out and bought The Rabbi's Cat 2. The second cat book contains two stories.

In the first tale, the often sarcastic, usually cocky talking cat spends time with the rabbi's older cousin Malka, whom we met in the first book. Malka and his lion are nomads, always looking for a new audience for their con game. Times, however, are changing for Jews in the 1930s, even in North Africa, and the aging pair are not always greeted by friendly faces.

In the second story, the rabbi has returned home, where all is not peaceful for his daughter and her new husband. When a young Jewish painter ends up in Algiers after escaping Communist Russia, he tells them the legend of an African Jerusalem, where he hopes to find safety from the ever-growing feelings of anti-Semitism. The rabbi and the cat decide to help the painter find the fabled city, and so starts their exciting cross-continent adventure.

In The Rabbi's Cat 2, the cat sees what happens when people of different cultures, languages, and religions come in contact. Sometimes it's an enriching experience, but other times the cat observes only trouble. Through humor and art, Sfar explores a changing Africa, the passing of a generation and its traditions, and the rabbi and his students' struggle to remain true to their beliefs.

In the scan at the right, the rabbi (with the beard), a Russian (not the painter), and a Catholic priest are sharing a meal and conversation. This scene takes place in Algiers before the rabbi goes on his trip. The bubble at the top of some panels is the cat speaking. (Click to see full size.)

Either of the Rabbi's cat books would make a great book club selection because of the broad range of topics Sfar incorporates in his stories.


Published by Pantheon Books, 2008
ISBN-13: 9780375425073
YTD: 111
Source: Bought (see review policy)
Rating: B+

Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)

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22 December 2010

Wordless Wednesday 109

December Sunset, 2010

For more Wordless Wednesday, click here.

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21 December 2010

Today's Read: The Hanging Tree by Bryan Gruley

MizB at Should Be Reading hosts Teaser Tuesdays. Here's how it works: Grab your current read; let the book fall open to a random page; and share 2 “teaser” sentences from that page. For more teasers, click on through to MizB's blog.

Exhaust snaked up from three pickup trucks and an SUV idling in the angled parking spaces that ran down both sides of Main to where the street veered west at the southern shore of the lake. The trucks had been left running to stay warm while their owners ate breakfast at Audrey's Diner. I imagined four grizzled old men in paid flannel shirts buttoned over thermals sopping up egg yolk with white toast and talking about the chance for more snow, about the Detroit Red Wings' goaltending problems, about that new hockey rink going up in town, and maybe, if they had heard by now, about Gracie McBride. (p. 14)
—From The Hanging Tree by Bryan Gruley (Simon & Schuster / Touchstone, 2010)

The Hanging Tree at Powell's
The Hanging Tree at Book Depository
These links lead to affiliate programs.

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20 December 2010

Review: By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham

Peter Harris is in the middle. He's a middling New York art dealer in the middle years of his life and marriage. He negotiates the middle path between his wife and daughter and between his artists and clients. Every day he attempts to level the balance.

Things begin to go out of whack when Mizzy, Peter's much younger and very handsome brother-in-law, comes to stay. Mizzy, claiming to be drug-free and ready to work, shows Peter the what ifs and the what could still bes. As the balance seesaws, Peter wrestles with finding a new set point.

Michael Cunningham's By Nightfall takes place mostly inside Peter Harris's head, leaving the art dealer's stream-of-consciousness for moments of conversation. It's no surprise that Peter's thoughts are focused on his family and career. But when Mizzy punctures Peter's protective bubble, letting in memories, desires, hurts, and fears, Peter loses his sense of self.

While Peter copes with newfound (or recently surfaced?) possibilities, we are swept along into the business side of the art world, a twenty-year marriage, and a strained father-daughter relationship. We cringe at Peter's moments of vulnerability and naïveté and root for his career plans.

Although By Nightfall is often emotionally powerful, at other times it leaves us hanging. This is the result of the stream-of-consciousness style--we can know only what Peter knows; there is no anonymous narrator to fill in the blanks. Thus, in the end, as in real life, some story lines remain without conclusion or explanation.

I listened to the audiobook (Macmillan Audio) narrated by Hugh Dancy. Dancy's vocalizations clearly signaled the switches from Peter's personal thoughts to spoken conversation, making this a great audiobook experience. My full audiobook review has been published on the AudioFile magazine website.

By Nightfall was an Indie Next Pick for October 2010. To learn about Michael Cunningham, visit his website. The publisher's website includes a reading guide, audio sample, sample text, and several audio and video interviews with the author.

By Nightfall at Powell's
By Nightfall at Book Depository
For the audio edition, see links in the sidebar
These links lead to affiliate programs

Published by Macmillan / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010
ISBN-13: 9780374299088
YTD: 110
Source: Review (print & audio) (see review policy)
Rating: B+

Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)

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18 December 2010

Weekend Cooking: Cookies and Holiday Memories

Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. For more information, see the welcome post.

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Today's Weekend Cooking post is an adventure in sharing--of friendship, blogging events, childhood memories, and holiday spirit.

Until I was nine years old, my family lived in one of those typical 1950s neighborhoods in which everyone knew everyone, all the kids played together after school, all the parents helped each other out, and we even had block parties. One great tradition was that every mom baked holiday cookies and shared them with all the other families on the street.

My mom and our next-door neighbor would always choose the same Saturday night to bake. Mrs. T was a widow and a grandmother, and her house was the one that the kids would run away from home to when they got in trouble. She would invite you into her kitchen, give you milk and cookies, listen to your troubles, and send you home in time for dinner.

Anyway, on baking night, my mom would send us to bed early and she would stay up all night baking apricot balls, rum balls, cream puffs, pinwheel cookies, chocolate mint cookies, and thumbprint cookies. There'd be about 3 dozen of each kind. My dad, who is not a kitchen kind of guy, would stay up with her, helping out and keeping her company.

From our beds, we could hear them talking softly and smell the wonderful scents of baking cookies and perking coffee. Throughout the night, my mom and Mrs. T would take breaks in each other's kitchens and at dawn they'd sit down to share a last cup of coffee and help make up the cookie plates they'd take around the neighborhood later that afternoon.

When we woke up in the morning, the entire dining room table would would be covered with the cookies ready for delivery. And just that one time, my mom would let us eat cookies for breakfast.

For more Virtual Advent Tour posts, please visit the dedicated blog. Thanks to Marg and Kailana for hosting this wonderful annual event.

Here is the recipe for the apricot balls. I remember these as one my favorites of my mom's cookies, but I haven't eaten them or made them years. I baked them last night, and I can tell you they are very rich and very sweet, but we still ate several with our after-dinner coffee.

The lighting in my kitchen is not great, and I didn't like the way the photos came out. If it's sunny today and I remember, I'll take some outdoor pictures and post one (but no promises). For more Cookie Swap! recipes, please visit Dawn at She Is Too Fond of Books.

Apricot Balls
Makes about 80 cookies
  • 1.5 pounds apricots, ground (yes, dried apricots)
  • 1.5 pounds shredded coconut
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1.5 teaspoons vanilla
  • 1 (14-oz) can sweetened condensed milk
Preheat the oven to 350F. Grease your baking sheets (or line with a silicone mat).

I used the grinding attachment on my mixer, but you could use a hand grinder or your food processor. Anyway, mix the apricots, coconut, and sugar together in a large bowl. The best way to do this is with your hands. Break up the clumps of fruit and mix well.

Add the vanilla and condensed milk and mix well. (again with your hands -- yes it's sticky).

Form the mixture into one-inch balls and place about 1/2 inch apart on the baking sheets. You might want to rinse your hands under cold water every so often -- it helps with the stickiness. Believe me, you don't want big cookies, they should be one-bite size. The balls don't spread when they bake, so they can be fairly close together on the sheets. Bake about 5 minutes just until slightly dried and the coconut barely takes on a bit of color. Do not overbake, the bottoms will burn long before the tops look brown.

Let cool for a couple of minutes in the pan and carefully transfer to a wire rack. The cookies firm up as they cool. Enjoy! Note that I cut the recipe in half last night. They are good, but sweet!

For more Weekend Cooking posts, be sure to visit the linked up posts below.

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17 December 2010

Imprint Friday: The Blind Contessa's New Machine by Carey Wallace

Welcome to Imprint Friday and today's featured imprint: Pamela Dorman Books. Stop by each week to be introduced to a must-read title from one of my favorite imprints. I know you'll be adding many of these books to your wish list.

Even with today's technological advances, the prospect of losing one's sight is frightening, but imagine what it must have been like 200 years ago. Carey Wallace's The Blind Contessa's New Machine takes us to Italy at the turn of the nineteenth century and the story of Contessa Carolina Fantoni, who inspired the invention of the first working typewriter.

Here's the publisher's summary:

In the early 1800s, a young Italian contessa, Carolina Fantoni, realizes she is going blind shortly before she marries the town's most sought-after bachelor. Her parents don't believe her, nor does her fiancé. The only one who understands is the eccentric local inventor and her longtime companion, Turri. When her eyesight dims forever, Carolina can no longer see her beloved lake or the rich hues of her own dresses. But as darkness erases her world, she discovers one place she can still see--in her dreams. Carolina creates a vivid dreaming life, in which she can not only see, but also fly, exploring lands she had never known.

Desperate to communicate with Carolina, Turri invents a peculiar machine for her: the world's first typewriter. His gift ignites a passionate love affair that will change both of their lives forever.

Based on the true story of a nineteenth-century inventor and his innovative contraption, The Blind Contessa's New Machine is an enchanting confection of love and the triumph of the imagination.
I found it almost impossible to browse through Wallace's novel; on almost every page, I was stopped by her captivating prose. From Carolina's attempts to tell her family of her diminishing sight to the horrible morning when opening her eyes brought no light, I was caught up in the story, wanting to know how she coped, how her husband would react, and what would happen when she was given her new machine.

I wasn't the only one taken in by Wallace's style.
  • Jenny from Take Me Away wrote: "This unique and compact story is full of such beautiful and lyrical prose that, if for no other reason, it should be savored for the writing alone. And Carey Wallace has such an enchanting style of storytelling with subtle humor . . . and alluring descriptions."
  • Melanie from Lit*Chick said "It is a difficult thing to write so grandly yet with restraint, and there is a perfect balance here. Rarely have I been curious to listen to an audiobook, but it seems to me the words would be so full and glorious spoken aloud."
  • Cate from Real Life with Kids noted "Describing the world of Carolina could easily be two dimensional and colorless. We are given such a feast of experience through words that it is easy to imagine ourselves looking out through Carolina’s unseeing eyes."
The Blind Contessa's New Machine touches on a number of themes, including marriage, society's expectations, and the meaning of love, in the telling of Carolina's story, making it a good discussion book. Ultimately, though, it may be Wallace's use of language that will stick with you.

The Blind Contessa's New Machine was an Indie Next Pick for July 2010. For more on Carey Wallace, be sure to visit her website, where you can see some of the contessa's typed letters. If you pick this title up for a book club, be sure to visit the publisher's site for a reading group guide.

This book was featured as part of my Imprint Fridays feature and my Spotlight on Pamela Dorman Books. For more information about the imprint, please read Pamela Dorman's introductory letter, posted here on December 3, 2010.

The Blind Contessa's New Machine at Powell's
The Blind Contessa's New Machine at Book Depository
These links lead to affiliate programs.

Published by Viking / Pamela Dorman Books, July 2010
ISBN-13: 9780670021895

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16 December 2010

Review: Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff

Cleopatra's bad reputation was known throughout the Roman Empire even during her lifetime. Accusations of her seductiveness only escalated after her suicide. Two thousand years later, that's what most people think about when they hear her name.

The truth is both less and more sensational. Although she was married twice to younger brothers, she probably had only two lovers: Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. She was protective of her four half-Roman children and was brutally decisive in defending her throne from her siblings. She was the richest ruler in the Mediterranean and likely one of the most educated.

Stacy Schiff's Cleopatra cuts through centuries of romance and slander to present the Egyptian queen in as true a light as possible. That quest to understand and know Cleopatra requires side trips into Greek and Roman history and peeks at the lives of Caesar, Pompey, Octavian, and others.

Although I am not an expert on all things Roman, I have had a long-term interest in the time period covered in the biography (roughly the last half century B.C.E.). The immensity of the story and the repercussions of each relationship, betrayal, battle, murder, and birth make it difficult to find a straight line through Cleopatra's tale. Schiff wisely doesn't attempt to create one, instead presenting information as and when needed to understand Cleopatra's actions and mind-set. This approach worked well for me, but I wonder how a reader new to the era would fare.

The concept of spoilers doesn't quite apply to nonfiction, but I do not want to reveal everything that was new to me. Instead, I share one aspect of Cleopatra's influence that I was unaware of. Although Octavian plundered her treasury and could barely mention her by name in the years after Actium, he was too afraid of losing Egyptian wheat to wipe out all traces of her power and popularity. The riches he brought back to Rome coupled with Cleopatra's own story set off a period of Egyptomania in the empire. Along with it, came a "golden age of women," in which "high-born [Roman] wives and sisters suddenly enjoyed a role in public life."

No wonder men tried to bury Cleopatra's intelligence and political savvy beneath a veil of adultery.

I both read a print copy and listened to the unabridged audio edition (Hachette Audio) of Cleopatra. I often like to have both media available for nonfiction so I can review names and dates when I need to and so I don't miss out on the illustrations.

The narrator was Robin Miles, who is an award-winning professional. Unfortunately, I felt that Miles overenunciated, making the reading a bit stilted. In addition, pauses seemed to come at odd moments, further breaking the flow of the text. Regardless, these problems were not enough to make me stop listening nor should they discourage you from giving the audio a try. I suggest that you listen to a sample of the reading before committing.

Finally I'd like to say bravo to Hachette for including a CD that contains all the illustrations (maps and photographs) that appear in the print version of the book. What a great treat for listeners. I wish every nonfiction audio publisher would do the same.

Cleopatra was an Indie Next pick for November 2010 and appears on the New York Times's best of 2010 list. To learn more about Schiff, visit her website.

Cleopatra at Powell's
Cleopatra at Book Depository
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Published by Little, Brown, 2010
ISBN-13: 9780316001922
YTD: 109
Source: Review (print & audio) (see review policy)
Rating: B

Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)

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15 December 2010

Wordless Wednesday 108

Pens

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14 December 2010

Today's Read: The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown

MizB at Should Be Reading hosts Teaser Tuesdays. Here's how it works: Grab your current read; let the book fall open to a random page; and share 2 “teaser” sentences from that page. For more teasers, click on through to MizB's blog.

Today's teaser comes from an upcoming Amy Einhorn book I'm dying to share with you. Look for my review just after the new year, when the book is released:

It's unlikely that our parents ever looked up any of our names in one of those baby name books. The Riverside Shakespeare had obviously been the repository of choice. Once Rose had a summer camp counselor who, as an icebreaker, looked up the meanings of all the children's names, and Rosalind was horrified to learn her name means, yes, "beautiful rose," but also "horse serpent." Horse serpent? If that won't give a girl body image issues for life, we don't know what will. (p. 58)
—From The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown (Putnam / Amy Einhorn, 2011) [Note: extract comes from an ARC and may not exactly match finished book.]

For more on Amy Einhorn Books, please click the tab under my banner photo.

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13 December 2010

It's a Challenge to Say No

Yes, I admit I'm a challenge addict. Yes, I admit that I sometimes fail challenges. Yes, I'm nuts. Anyway, here are a few more that I'm signing up for.

  • The 2011 Audiobook Challenge is hosted by Teresa's Reading Corner. You knew I had to enter this one, didn't you? I'm committing to 12 audiobooks for the challenge, which is the addicted level. Please check out the sign-up post for more information.
  • I'm so excited about the Foodie's Challenge, hosted by Margot from Joyfully Retired. The challenge has a dedicated blog, where you can sign-up and learn more about the challenge. I'm in for the gourmet level. Qualifying books include everything from foodie novels to nonfiction to cookbooks.
  • Amy from My Friend Amy is hosting the third annual, Buy One Book and Read It challenge. As always, I'm committing to 12 books, but you can join this challenge on the one-book level if you want. Check out the sign-up post.
  • I'm happy to see that Carrie from Books and Movies is hosting the Ireland Reading Challenge again. I discovered some great books in this year's challenge and can't wait to see what I find for 2011. I'm going for the Luck o' the Irish Level. Read the sign-up post and join in.
I'm kind of hoping no other challenges catch my eye, but I'll likely find one or two more that I can't resist.

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11 December 2010

Weekend Cooking: The Cornbread Gospels by Crescent Dragonwagon

Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. For more information, see the welcome post.

_______

Do you remember last year when I introduced you to Crescent Dragonwagon? Not only did that post allow me talk about two favorite cookbooks but it also gave me a chance to meet Crescent on Twitter, which lead to my discovering another cookbook that I adore.

We love everything cornmeal, so Crescent's The Cornbread Gospels has become a much-used cookbook around here. The book title says "cornbread" but the recipes cover a world of flavors from traditional cornbreads to spoonbreads, puddings, yeast breads, and muffins. Other chapters present recipes for pancakes and waffles, recipes that use cornbread (think stuffings, for example), and desserts.

Oh and then there's the chapter titled "Great Go-Withs," which includes chili, salads, soups, and more. And scattered throughout are fun corn-related quotes and fantastic cooking, baking, and shopping tips. All the recipes are easy to follow and are written in Crescent's characteristically down-to-earth, friendly style.

I have made a number of breads from Cornbread Gospels, but one of our favorites is Chipotle Cornbread. We love its spicy bite and the smoky depth, which comes from the chipotle peppers in adobo sauce.

Chipotle Cornbread
8 wedges
  • Vegetable oil cooking spray
  • 1/3 cup butter
  • 1 cup coarse stone-ground yellow cornmeal
  • 1 cup unbleached white flour
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 eggs lightly beaten
  • 2/3 cup milk
  • 4 canned chipotle peppers (remove and discard stems) plus 2 teaspoons adobo sauce, pureed
Preheat the oven to 400F. Spray a 10-inch cast-iron skillet with oil and dollop in the butter.

Combine the cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl.

Whisk together the eggs, milk, and pureed chipotle-adobo mix in a small bowl.

Place the prepared skillet in the oven to heat up for a few minutes, allowing the butter to melt.

Combine the cornmeal mixture and the egg mixture, stirring until everything is just mixed. Then pull the skillet from the oven and pour about half the melted butter from the skillet into the batter. Stir the butter in, and working quickly so the skillet remains almost smoking hot, transfer the batter into it. Put the whole shebang back in the oven and bake until it's deep golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes.

Beth Fish's notes: If you don't like a lot of heat, try using just one pepper and about 1/4 teaspoon of sauce. You may need to add an extra splash of milk.


Published by Workman, 2007
ISBN-13: 9780761119166
YTD: 108
Rating: B+
Source: Review (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)


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10 December 2010

Imprint Friday: The Doctor and the Diva by Adrienne McDonnell

Welcome to Imprint Friday and today's featured imprint: Pamela Dorman Books. Stop by each week to be introduced to a must-read title from one of my favorite imprints. I know you'll be adding many of these books to your wish list.

The Doctor and the Diva by Adrienne McDonnell, is exactly my kind of book: historical fiction with a solid foundation in a true story about family members with a generous mix of women's rights, medical issues, and difficult personal decisions. This is a story I want to read.

Here's the publisher's summary:

It is 1903. Dr. Ravell is a young Harvard-educated obstetrician with a growing reputation for helping couples conceive. He has treated women from all walks of Boston society, but when Ravell meets Erika--an opera singer whose beauty is surpassed only by her spellbinding voice--he knows their doctor-patient relationship will be like none he has ever had.

After struggling for years to become pregnant, Erika believes there is no hope. Her mind is made up: she will leave her prominent Bostonian husband to pursue her career in Italy, a plan both unconventional and risky. But becoming Ravell's patient will change her life in ways she never could have imagined.
As I said, this novel appealed to me on a variety of levels from straight historical fiction to an examination of the age-old women's dilemma of how to balance a career with motherhood. But it may have been the opening line of the Washington Post's review that sealed the deal for me: "Some novels just naturally enslave you, and this is one of them."

One aspect of The Doctor and the Diva I find very interesting is that it seems to bring out strong emotions in women readers. For example, Julie from Booking Mama was put off by the characters and their choices; however, she said: "I was extremely impressed with Ms. McDonnell's writing style, and it's hard to believe that [this] is her debut novel. I thought the historical aspects of this novel seemed to be very authentic."

On the other side, "grow and change and their lives become much more than they had been. The three [main characters] are also somewhat diminished by their experiences as well, which is a point I feel was handled beautifully."

The Doctor and the Diva is thus the perfect choice for a book club: a well-written, well-researched novel that creates a variety of reactions. Adrienne McDonnell's website includes a reading group guide, which will jump-start your discussion.

In this short video, McDonnell discusses the basis of her novel, some of her research, and the behavior of her characters. There are no spoilers.


The Doctor and the Diva was an Indie Next Pick for August 2010.

This book was featured as part of my Imprint Fridays feature and my Spotlight on Pamela Dorman Books. For more information about the imprint, please read Pamela Dorman's introductory letter, posted here on December 3, 2010.

The Doctor and the Diva at Powell's
The Doctor and the Diva at Book Depository
These links lead to affiliate programs.

Published by Viking / Pamela Dorman Books, July 2010
ISBN-13: 9780670021888

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09 December 2010

Review: Bad Marie by Marcy Dermansky

Marie, fresh out of jail for accessory to murder and bank robbery, needed a job. Ellen, who had known Marie since they were kids, needed a nanny for two-year-old Caitlin. Seems like the old friends were reuniting at the perfect moment.

Despite her lack of childcare experience, Marie was in heaven: gourmet food and a place to live and a little girl who seemed to love her. The best part, however, was Ellen's French husband, the author of Marie's favorite novel.

After just a few weeks on the job, Marie is caught naked and asleep in the tub, while Caitlin plays in the cool water beside her. Ellen is horrified, but her husband, Benoit, can't keep his eyes off Marie's body. Life in paradise has clearly come to end, but Marie isn't about to go down without a fight, and she proceeds to take a few of Ellen's things before she leaves. Two of those things are Benoit and Caitlin.

Just how bad is Marie and who else is to blame? Can a thirty-year-old ex-con figure out how deal with a toddler while on the run?

Marcy Dermansky's Bad Marie is a fascinating novel. Marie is a complicated character, and her ambiguity--good or bad? victim or perpetrator?--keeps your attention from the first page.

She never drank in the daytime. Only at night. Marie didn't see the harm: a little whiskey, a little chocolate (p. 1).
And you nod your head, agreeing that it doesn't seem so bad.

Marie pushes the limits in such small increments that you never really notice when she crosses the line. You wonder if she knows what's she's doing or if she's a perpetual victim who simply does what she must to survive. You'll read the novel in one go just to see what Marie does next.

This book was spotlighted earlier as part of my imprint feature, which includes Harper Perennial. For information about the imprint, please read Erica Barmash's welcome note of June 18, 2010, and visit the The Olive Reader, the Harper Perennial blog.

Bad Marie at Powell's
Bad Marie at Book Depository
These links lead to affiliate programs

Published by HarperCollins / Harper Perennial, 2010
ISBN-13: 9780061914713
YTD: 107
Source: Review (see review policy)
Rating: B+

Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)

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08 December 2010

Beth Fish visits The Book Lady

Hey guess what? The lovely Rebecca from The Book Lady's Blog invited me to her place to talk about audiobooks and Audiobook Jukebox. Go on over and see what I have to say.

And while you're there, be sure to see what is happening on Rebecca's blog. I'm enjoying her Best of 2010 series.

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Wordless Wednesday 107

Birdhouse Collection


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07 December 2010

Imprint Extra: CeeCee Honeycutt and Oletta's Next Adventure

As I have mentioned once or twice, I absolutely loved Beth Hoffman's novel, Saving CeeCee Honeycutt. The women Beth wrote about came alive for me, and I still think about them and hope that CeeCee is feeling safe and strong.

I am honored to have a very special treat for you today: Oletta Jones's debut into the world of journalism. Please give a warm welcome to a wonderfully wise woman, who is here to tell you how she became an author.

What Would Oletta Say?

My name is Oletta Jones. Up until a few months ago not many folks knew who I was, and that was fine by me. Then some woman wrote a book and made me a main character; can you believe that? And now, well, I guess I’m kinda famous. But I don’t mind, not most days, anyway. I go to my job at Miz Tootie’s just like always, and I still keep an eye on CeeCee as if she was my own. Lord knows that child needs some guidance. She’s doin’ real good, but with all she’s been through in her young life, I can’t help but worry.

Lately all sorts of letters been comin’ to my mailbox. People think I’ve got answers to their problems. A lot of those folks think I’m wise. Makes me feel good, especially since I didn’t finish school. Somehow the newspaper people got wind of all those letters and they asked me to write a column—said they’d call it “What Would Oletta Say?”

They want me to pick one letter each week and give my answer so they can put it in the newspaper. Well, CeeCee and I looked over all the letters and had ourselves a gay ol’ time readin’ the questions. It was hard to take some of ‘em serious, I’ll tell you that.

The first question we picked is from somebody named Luellen:

Oletta, No matter what I do in life or how much my net worth is, I never feel like I have enough. To make matters worse, I’m in a relationship, but he hurts my feelings all the time. I was thinking maybe I should see a therapist, but what do you think I should do?

Dear Luellen,

Net Worth? I don’t know what that is, but CeeCee says it’s got something to do with your checkbook. And if you think your worth has anything to do with how much money you got, then you’re in trouble plenty! When I hear about so many folks goin’ to what they call “therapy”—well, I wonder what this world’s comin’ to. Now, I know some people need genuine help, and it’s real good they get it, but here’s the thing: too may people lookin’ to others for answers. Somewhere along the way a whole lot of folks up and forgot how powerful they are. Seems to me you’re of ’em.

Maybe you never feel like anything is enough ’cause you don’t like yourself, and if you don’t like yourself, then you’ll never feel like you’re enough and you’ll never be happy with your place in this world. Now, as for your boyfriend, I’m no expert on love, but here’s what I know—love ain’t supposed to hurt.

Think about that. My momma always used to say, “The Good Lord gave you a brain for a reason. Use it.”

All I know is this: happiness comes from the inside, a good days work should bring satisfaction, people get money all mixed up with happiness, and it sure ain’t love if it hurts.

Seems to me that sentence right there just about sums up anything I could ever say, so there’s no sense in me readin’ any more letters or doin’ this column.

Guess I just put myself out of a part-time job at the newspaper, but that’s okay—I got bread in the oven, friends to laugh with, a nice roof over my head, and I like myself just fine. I’m enough. And I hope one day you'll think you're enough too.
_______
Oh, Oletta, you really are wise, whether you think you are or not. And don't fret over not becoming a famous columnist; you've given so many of us plenty to think about already.

Now my biggest wish is that you have a pot of tea warming on the stovetop and some of that fresh bread ready to slice and eat with honey or your fresh strawberry preserves. I'll make room for everyone else at the table too.

This post was an Imprint Extra for the featured imprint Pamela Dorman Books. For more on Pamela Dorman Books, please see Pamela Dorman's guest post and the introduction to her imprint. For my review of Saving CeeCee Honeycutt, click here. To meet Beth Hoffman, visit her website and blog, and follow her on Twitter.

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06 December 2010

It's a Challenging World

What can I say? I love a good challenge. I hope to have completed about eighteen challenges in 2010, although I did fail a number of others. As I've written before, I sign up for challenges for the fun, no guilt allowed.

So here are some more I'm taking on in 2011.



Global Challenge, hosted by Dorte H. I have one more book to finish up for this year, but I have hopes of finishing earlier next year. The challenge has a great new category, which will let me use a fictional world for one of the categories. I'm in for easy level. Visit the dedicated blog for information and sign-up.

YA Historical Fiction, hosted by


War through the Generations, hosted by Anna and Serena. I have never signed up for this one, but I cannot resist the Civil War theme. I'm going for the wade level and will likely be watching a movie or two. Visit the dedicated blog for more.

Criminal Plots, hosted by Jen F. This is a brand new challenge and looks like a lot of fun. The challenge is to read six books, each of which fits a particular category (new to you author, book to movie, first in series, and so on). This looks like fun. For all the categories, see the dedicated blog.

Graphic Novels hosted this year by Vasilly. This will be my third year for the GN challenge, and I'm really looking forward to it. I'm going for the intermediate level. Visit the dedicated blog for more information.



Nordic Challenge, hosted by Zee. The idea here is to read books written by a Nordic author or set in a Nordic country. Can't wait to get reading and this will be my excuse to finally finish the Millennium Trilogy. I'm signing up at the Freya level. For more, see the sign-up post.

South Asian Challenge, hosted by Swapna. I've already mentioned my intention to take on this challenge, but the official sign-up post is now up. I'm going for the the wanderer level.

Believe it or not, I still haven't signed up for as many 2011 challenges as I finished in 2010. So I figure I still have room for a few more.

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