Monday, November 24, 2008

The Chocolate Snowman Murders by JoAnna Carl

Lee McKinney Woodyard knows that being in the luxury chocolate business isn't all sweetness and light, nor is the holiday season. But she tries to draw the line at cold-blooded murder...

With the Warner Pier Winter Arts Festival just days away, everyone in the West Michigan town is looking forward to the big art show - and, of course, the unveiling of TenHuis Chocolate's special holiday chocolates.

As treasurer of WinterFest, Lee is up to her elbows in the arguments, egos, and last-minute mix-ups that happen behind the scenes. But she's coping, even when the guest juror of the arts festival shows up drunk. Lee leaves him to sleep it off, but she is stunned the next day when her husband, Joe, discovers that someone has put the visiting dignitary into a permanent state of repose.

As the last people spotted near the crime scene, Lee and Joe are in a sticky situation. But after another murder and a run-in with a deadly snowman, they're more determined than ever to find the real killer before someone else comes to a bitter end...

First, let me say that this was my first Chocoholic mystery, and most certainly my last. I picked this up because of the great title. Frankly, the title is the only thing great about the book. The book was mediocre at best. In fact, if I hadn't already been curled up under a blanket with a cup of cocoa and without another book within reach, I wouldn't have even gotten past the first chapter. But, since I was all settled I got about halfway through and figured I may as well force myself to finish it. It wasn't worth the time.

The main character, Lee, is annoying beyond belief! She's such a princess, constantly whining about how she's so pretty and how, in her first marriage (of two), she was a trophy wife. Seriously? I mean, come on! She is also a complete brat about being from Texas and how people judge her from being from there, blah, blah. Well, if she shut up about it for five minutes then it wouldn't be a problem! And, I really, really hated the part where she was in a restaurant with her husband and she got angry that another diner thought she was a call girl. Seriously, how vain do you have to be to even think that?!

Also, there was a nasty comment from the police chief character about how someone who got killed in a motel must have been involved with criminals. He gives prostitutes and drug dealers equal billing on that one. I found that especially offensive having just read Brothel.

The only good thing about the book was that it was a rather quick read, but it had a formal, but not overly stiff, flow.

The killer was easy to identify right from the beginning, but the why was harder to guess.

All in all, it was a weak book with a bitchy main character that grates on your nerves, and I can't believe that this was the 8th in a series! I have no desire to read the other seven! I simply cannot give this anything higher than five stars.

Rating: ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆

Sunday, November 23, 2008

A Highland Christmas by M.C. Beaton

In the dark, wintry highlands of Lochdubh, Scotland, where the local Calvinist element resists the secular trimmings of Christmas, the spirit of old St. Nick is about as welcome as a flat tire on a deserted road. Nor is crime taking a holiday, as Constable Hamish Macbeth soon finds himself protecting an unhappy girl, unlocking the secrets of a frightened old woman, and retrieving some stolen holiday goods. Now the lanky lawman must use all his Highland charm and detective skills to make things right. And he had better do it quickly, for the church bells will soon toll and all of Lochdubh will be forced to face another dreary winter without the comforting embrace of Yuletide cheer.

This was the unabridged audiobook on cassette edition (2 cassettes/2 hours).

What a perfect little Christmas story! It was short, sweet, and filled with the usual Hamish Macbeth capers and lovely characters. It just left you with a warm glow at the end.

Although, I do prefer Davina Porter's reading of the Hamish Macbeth books, the reader, Graeme Malcolm, did an okay job. It's just not the same though.

I'm glad the missing cat situation was resolved, but I am still a bit disturbed by how poor Smoky was treated during his confinement. Poor little guy! It's good that he seemed no worse for the wear.

So, all in all, another great Hamish Macbeth book. Especially good since it was both a Christmas theme and short. This one gets a firm eight stars.

Rating: ★★★★★★★★☆☆

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Book of Lies by Brad Meltzer

In chapter four of the Bible, Cain kills Abel. It is the world's most famous murder. But the Bible is silent about one key detail: the weapon Cain used to kill his brother. That weapon is still lost to history.

In 1932, Mitchell Siegel was killed by two gunshots to the chest. While mourning, his son dreamed of a bulletproof man and created the world's greatest hero: Superman. And like Cain's murder weapon, the gun used in this unsolved murder has never been found.

Today in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Cal Harper comes face-to-face with his own family tragedy: His long-missing father has been shot with a gun that traces back to Mitchell Siegel's 1932 murder. But soon after their surprising reunion, Cal and his father are attacked by a ruthless killer tattooed with the ancient markings of Cain.

So begins the chase for the world's first murder weapon. It is a race that will pull Cal back into his own past even as it propels him forward through the true story of Cain and Abel, and eighty-year-old unsolvable puzzle, and the deadly organization known for the past century as the Leadership.

What does Cain, history's greatest villain, have to do with Superman, the world's greatest hero? And what do two murders, committed thousands of years apart, have in common? This is the mystery at the heart of Brad Meltzer's riveting and utterly intriguing new thriller.

This was the unabridged audiobook on CD edition (10 discs/11.5 hours).

The author is a complete genius, as is the reader, Scott Brick. I don't think the book would have been as good without his reading.

The characters were annoying at times (case in point, Naomi, who was a complete bitch to start but grew on me very slightly as the book went on), and just downright crazy at others (Ellis & company), but very realistic. Ellis and his associates really concerned me as they could be real people. I guess they just prove that religious zealots, or zealots of any kind, are the most dangerous of all humans. It's incredibly scary to think that there are people like them in the real world.

And wow! I had no idea about the identity of the Prophet until the author told us, but wow! That was a great twist!

I had no idea what the heck the Superman connection was for 99% of the book, but once everything was resolved that was indeed a great choice. And the Luther editorial/Lex Luthor connection was fabulous!

I'm not sure if the choice to use "fudge me" instead of the real thing came from the author, or the audio publisher, but it was incredibly annoying. Sort of like watching an edited version of the Sopranos or Sex and the City - it's just off somehow.

So, the author was brilliant, the reader was fabulous (as always), and the entire book, while long, was worth the time. I didn't particularly enjoy the book, but it was good and for that reason, I'm going to give it 7 stars.

Rating: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Boyfriend List by E. Lockhart

Ruby Oliver is fifteen and has a shrink. She knows it's unusual, but give her a break - she's had a rough ten days. In the past ten days she:

  • lost her boyfriend (#13 on the list)
  • lost her best friend (Kim)
  • lost all her other friends (Nora, Cricket)
  • did something suspicious with a boy (#10)
  • did something advanced with a boy (#15)
  • had an argument with a boy (#14)
  • drank her first beer (someone handed it to her)
  • got caught by her mom (ag!)
  • had a panic attack (scary)
  • lost a lacrosse game (she's the goalie)
  • failed a math test (she'll make it up)
  • hurt Meghan's feelings (even though they aren't really friends)
  • became a social outcast (no one to sit with at lunch)
  • had graffiti written about her in the girl's bathroom (who knows what was in the boys'!?!)
But don't worry - Ruby lives to tell the tale. And make more lists.

This was the unabridged audiobook on CD edition (5 discs/5.75 hours).

This was really cute and funny. I really enjoyed the reader's performance. She was perfect for the book - young sounding, but not screechy-baby-voice.

In an nutshell, Kim is a bitch, Jackson is a jerk, and Ruby is confused. The list was interesting and made the book flow along nicely.

All in all it was a good book. It wasn't great, but also certainly not horrible. It was a light, fluffy, easy listen. I'm going to give it seven stars.

Rating: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Brothel by Alexa Albert

It began with an amazing revelation: Not a single legal prostitute in Nevada has contracted HIV since testing began in 1986. Why? Harvard medical student Alexa Albert traveled to Nevada in search of answers. Gain unprecedented access to the infamous and notoriously secretive Mustang Ranch, Albert reveals a fascinatingly insular world where the women share their experiences with unexpected candor. There's Dinah, Mustang's oldest prostitute, who turned her first trick years ago at age fifty-one. And Savannah, a woman who views her work as a "healing" social service for needy men.

Nevada's legal brothels are an incredibly rich environment for examining some of this nation's thorniest social issues. From problems of class and race to the meaning of family, honor, and justice - all are found within this complex and singular microcosm. And in a country where prejudice is a dirty word - but not as dirty as hooker - these social issues are compounded and deepened by the stifling stigma that has always plagued the profession. But in the end, all of Mustang's working girls are just trying to earn their way to happiness.

Brothel is a landmark work that probes beyond the veil of desire and fantasy in which the sex trade shrouds itself - and uncovers the naked humanity at its core.

What surprised me most, I think, was to discover that most of the women were working to support husbands or boyfriends! These husbands sound like real gems. Others support parents, and both the parents and husbands don't allow the women to return home until they've met their "quota" of a given dollar amount!

I think one of the women, Brittany, said it best: "But, as far as I'm concerned, if you're sending money to a man who wouldn't be with you if you weren't sending him money, then he's not your boyfriend, he's your pimp."

I was also very surprised to learn that the clients weren't required to shower before business took place. Granted, there was a general disinfection of the involved area using an antibacterial wash, and/or baby wipes, but ick!!!!! This is certainly not the world of a high paid escort!

It seemed, sadly, like the majority of the women were almost addicted to bad relationships, and men who use them. But, I guess if you really think about it, that's really the same with most women in the general population.

Also, it also seems like most of the opponents to legalized prostitution are foaming at the mouth religious zealots and not well educated, well informed objectors. At least that's what I got from the interviews in the book.

It was also sad to read that the Ranch had closed - I'd had no idea. I felt a sense of loss reading about the closure. Through the book I felt like I'd gotten to know the women and I was really concerned about what would happen to them post-Ranch. I'm glad the author followed up with most of them and gave us an update.

In case anyone is wondering about my views on legalized prostitution - I'm firmly pro-legalization. I think it should actually be legal in all 50 states.

All in all the book was very readable. The author had a great voice and really strove to understand the women and their world and not prejudge them. I'll give it 8 stars.

Rating: ★★★★★★★★☆☆

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Never Kiss a Goat on the Lips by Vic Sussman

A witty and informative look at suburban homesteading, Never Kiss a Goat on the Lips will delight you whether you live in the country, the suburbs, or the city. Vic Sussman tells the story of how he and his ever-increasing family finally made the decision to leave the city and, well, almost move to the country. They took one small leap and ended up in a suburb just 20 miles from Washington, D.C.

Once there, they began the task of learning homesteading skills - gardening, caring for animals, chopping wood, and canning and freezing. They worked on revitalizing their old house, switched from oil to wood heat, and started to understand how to live off the land.

But it wasn't easy. Just keeping their sense of humor was difficult but Vic Sussman and his family managed to keep laughing through it all. The joys of doing-it-yourself become apparent in this appealing look at the life of a suburban homesteader.

Although there are many anecdotes about how the author's wife, Betsy, left her rich bitch WASPy life to live "The Good Life" with the author in the "country" (i.e. barely suburbia), the impression I got was that the couple is really just another upper middle class couple who decided that they simply couldn't live without being in "the country" and so moved to suburbia (a very rich suburban area outside Washington, DC as the author constantly reminds us) and pretended that that was "country living". There were several amusing points at which I thought "Well, duh, you idiots!" when they did something that common sense would tell you is wrong.

In any case, the reason for the title's advice? The author's wife experienced a severe mystery facial rash after just such an incident. Another, "well, duh!" moment.

The author does rescue snakes (yes, snakes) and even cared for ("godfathered" as he said), a nest of 16 that he found in a manure pile. I can't help but like him a wee bit less for that. As my aunt says, "The only good snake is a dead snake.". I tend to agree.

Also, the author is more than a bit eccentric about heating his home. He uses a wood stove, but this doesn't heat the entire house, and some areas are in the 50s! It's so cold at times that they wear sweaters and even hats! Inside! I think that's going a bit far. Especially since he has children! If the author had chosen a wood furnace it would be a completely different story. He's just essentially camping in his own house!

There's also an entire chapter devoted to how the author's wife gave birth at home and all his propaganda in favor of it. I'm just too disgusted by his attitude, and his wife's militant feminist views on the subject, that I'm completely speechless. I'm simply too disturbed by the entire thing. I ground my teeth during the entire, seemingly endless, hellish chapter.

All in all, the author is rather arrogant at best, and downright rude in places when discussing people who don't wholeheartedly agree with his philosophy of living. I certainly would never want to meet him. I do think some of the friction comes from the fact that the book was published in 1981. The world has certainly changed quite a bit in the past 25+ years, so that may be a contributing factor. Although, I think the author would be an arrogant ass no matter when the book was written.

I'm going to give this one six stars. On the pros side, there were some interesting anecdotes, on the cons side, the author is an arrogant ass and his wife is just indescribable, and they bug me.

Rating: ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆

Friday, November 14, 2008

Robbing the Bees by Holley Bishop

"Honey has been waiting almost ten million years for a good biography," writes Holley Bishop. Bees have been making this food on Earth for hundreds of millenia, but we humans started recording our fascination with it only in the past few thousand years - painting bees and hives on cave and temple walls and papyrus scrolls, revering them in poetry and art, even worshipping these amazing little insects as gods. From the temples of the Nile to the hives behind the author's own house, people have had a long, rapturous love affair with the beehive and the seductive, addictive honey it produces. Combining passionate research, rich detail, and fascinating anecdote, Holley Bishop's Robbing the Bees is an in-depth, sumptuous look at the oldest, most delectable food in the world.

Part biography, part history, Robbing the Bees is also a celebration, a love letter to bees and their magical produce. Honey has played significant and varied roles in civilization: it is so sweet that bacteria can't survive in it, so it was our first food preservative and all-purpose wound salve. Honey wine, or mead, was the intoxicant of choice long before beer or wine existed. Hindus believe honey leads to a long life; Mohammed looked to honey as a remedy for all illness. Virgil; Aristotle, Pythagoras; Gregor Mendel; Sylvia Plath's father, Otto; and Sir Edmund Hillary are among the famous beekeepers and connoisseurs who have figured in honey's past and shaped its present.

To help navigate the worlds and cultures of honey, Holley Bishop - beekeeper, writer, and honey aficionado - apprentices herself to a modern guide and expert, professional beekeeper Donald Smiley, who harvests tupelo honey from hundreds of hives in the remote town of Wewahitchka, Florida. Bishop chronicles Smiley's day-to-day business as he robs his bees in the steamy Florida panhandle and provides an engaging exploration of the lively science, culture, and lore that surround each step of the beekeeping process and each stage of bees' lives.

Interspersed throughout the narrative are the author's lyrical reflections on her own beekeeping experiences, the business and gastronomical world of honey, the myriad varieties of honey (as distinct as the provenance of wine), as well as illustrations, historical quotes, and recipes - ancient, contemporary, and some of the author's own creations.

The author was really friendly sounding, and I took to her writing style right away. What could have been a horrendously boring book was light, fun, and informative.

One of the first lines from the book that really grabbed me and made me know that I'd love this book was the author talking about how she first decided on bees versus other animals (such as chickens) for her home in Connecticut:

"Immediately I was captivated by the idea of low-maintenance farm stock that did the farming for you and didn't need to be walked, milked, or brushed."

She also mentioned the sheer amount of labor involved to produce honey:

"When nectar is abundant, the inhabitants of a colony will collectively fly 55,000 miles and gather from more than two million flowers to make a pound of honey, with each bee contributing in total just a twelfth of a teaspoon to the communal coffer in her lifetime."

Wow! I knew the bees had it hard, but that is just crazy!

She also mentioned these statistics:
  • One hive can make up to 150 lbs of honey in a summer (the author's bees in Connecticut need 60 lbs for winter use, so she can harvest about 90 lbs a year!)
  • A full 7 inch deep super (where the excess honey for harvest is stored in the hive) contains 17 lbs of honey
Beekeeping does sound like a fun hobby. Actually the word "apiary" just sounds lovely! But it can be rather pricey:
  • Full hive setup with frames, hive bodies, supers, etc. = $150
  • 3 lb starter package of bees, complete with a queen = $50
  • Miscellaneous tools (smoker, protective wear, etc.) = $50
The book was a joy to read and I read through the entire thing in a matter of a couple days. This one definitely gets a firm 8 stars! That's high praise, since only Michael Pollan and Dean Koontz ever rank that high for me!

Rating: ★★★★★★★★☆☆

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Starcross by Philip Reeve

Art and Myrtle Mumby have traveled through space to save the British Empire from an attack by giant spiders. So they kind of deserve a holiday. And that's exactly what they believe they're getting when they travel to Starcross, a luxurious resort in the asteroid belt.

Little do they know they have been lured to Starcross by a sinister being who plans to take control of their minds. Luckily for Art and Myrtle, they have an extremely powerful, ancient superhuman on their side - their mum. She sniffs out the evil scheming and sends an ominous warning to her children. The solar system is on the brink of invasion - from highly intelligent hats from the future!

Winner of the Gold Nestle Smarties Book Prize, Philip Reeve received five starred reviews for Larklight, the extraordinary adventure that preceded Starcross. His off-the-wall, Victorian-era humor fills the smashing sequel with nonstop laughs, and narrator Chris Steinbruner provides a rollicking performance.

This was the unabridged audiobook on CD edition (7 discs/7.5 hours).

I, personally did not find the book to have any "Victorian-era humor" or to be filled with "nonstop laughs". And the reader was far, far, far from providing a "rollicking performance"! I'm not sure the person who wrote the copy on the book listened to the same book I did! Of course, they were being paid to write the copy, so that may explain it.

As with Larklight, I found the reader outrageously annoying. And, I found Myrtle to be just as bitchy and overly religious as before.

Mrs. Mumby was a nice addition. She seems like someone you would actually want to know in real life. Jack somehow reminds me of the character Nat from The Witch of Blackbird Pond.

The story itself was okay. It would have been significantly better without the religious spouting from Myrtle. Ugh! And if I ever hear "Mr. Titfur" again it will be too soon! I can't tell if the author is just an ass, or if the reader makes the book seem worse than it is. The one light spot in the entire book was a passing mention of ginger shortbread. It sounds yummy and I simply must find a recipe for it!

I'll give it six stars. It would be seven with a different reader. I'm certainly not hoping for another installment in the series!

Rating: ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆

Kitchen Gardens of France by Louisa Jones

Magnificent kitchen gardens are a long-standing tradition in France. Every region has its own characteristic examples that - depending on the climate, terrain and design - boast a profusion of vegetables, fruit, flowers and herbs. Family knowledge is carefully handed down for the benefit of each new generation.

In this wonderful celebration of the French kitchen garden, old-fashioned techniques and obscure produce are rediscovered. A illuminating text and brilliant color photographs uncover vegetable patches growing alongside chateaux or abbeys, romantic gardens tended by parish priests, gourmet gardens planted by master chefs and lovely ornamental idylls. Four main sections, covering stately homes, grassroots gardening, dreams and utopias, and vegetable produce, conjure up the rich history and extraordinary variety of the French countryside from Paris to the Alps.

The extravagance of the kitchen garden at Mongenan, highly praised by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the mosaic-like patterns of the allotments at Ivry, and labyrinthine cultivated gardens at Amiens are just a few examples of these most original, most secret, most spectacular and most poetic of kitchen gardens.

This book had amazing pictures (including a bizarre picture of a fountain of a woman with water spouting from her nipples!) but I found the text rather pompous and hard to read since I couldn't pronounce all the French names in my head!

There were some wonderful pictures of beautiful greenhouses on estates. They were just huge, and I was so envious! While other gardens were styled to make them so similar to nature they just looked messy and overgrown! A lot of the smaller gardens, owned by more middle class people were awfully crowded with stuff everywhere - statues and overlarge trellises, etc. I much prefer the rigid, geometric style gardens like Versailles.

The author also told a story of how one gardener had to abandon his garden patch because it was invaded by wild boar! Imagine wild boar invading the garden! I thought bunnies and chipmunks were bad enough! Wow! I have no idea what I'd do if I went out the garden one day to discover a hulking wild board sitting there eating all my stuff - probably turn and run!

There were a couple choice quotes:

Chinese proverb: "Life begins the day you start a garden."

And quoting Maral Paynal: "I want to live in communion with Nature. I want to eat the vegetables of my garden, the oil of my olive trees, to suck fresh eggs of my chickens, to get drunk on the wine of my vines, and so far as possible to eat the bread I make with my wheat."

I think that's the way most gardeners feel, we want to live as closely aligned with our gardens and produce as possible.

I'm going to give this one seven stars. As a plus were the beautiful pictures, as a minus was the difficult to read text.

Rating: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆

Death of a Perfect Wife by M.C. Beaton

Village newcomers Paul and Trixie Thomas don't seem to fit in with Lochdubh's locals - after all, they're British and unemployed. But Trixie doesn't let that stop her. When she isn't pushing her Anti-Smoking League, vegetarian cooking, and birdwatching society, she is wheedling belongings from her new neighbors. In fact, her influence affects the whole community until the day someone silences her forever.

With some villagers quietly celebrating Trixie's death and many with their own reason to do away with her, Lochdubh's independent-spirited, one-man police force, Hamish Macbeth, is up to his elbows in troubles.

This was the unabridged audiobook on cassette edition (4 cassettes/approx 5 hours).

I quite enjoyed this installment in the Hamish Macbeth series. It was the usual charming setting with an interesting storyline.

Having just seen the first series of the BBC's Hamish Macbeth on DVD, I couldn't help but make comparisons between the two. I do like the DVD version of the series in its own right, but I prefer the books. The DVD Priscilla is a total bitch that I just want to smack, but Robert Carlyle as Hamish is quite yummy and they do seem to have him shirtless remarkably often. :)

But, back to the book. I really disliked Trixie and thought she got exactly what she deserved. And poor Hamish! I'm somewhat glad that he got over Priscilla, but it's also a bit sad. I'm definitely glad that Priscilla finally woke up to Hamish's feelings for her. The imagery of the two newspapers with Hamish and John Burlington side by side in her flat in London was perfect!

Davina Porter, the reader, was quite good, as usual. She doesn't go overboard with the character interpretations and has a nice, smooth voice.

This one gets a solid eight stars. I can't wait to find out what happens next!

Rating: ★★★★★★★★☆☆

Monday, November 10, 2008

Apples by Frank Browning

Frank Browning's lifelong fascination with apples began on his parents' orchard in the Appalachian hills of Kentucky. In Apples he charmingly demonstrates why this mysterious fruit continues to tempt and delight us.

Throughout Western memory, the apple has been the fruit of trouble, immortality, and temptation: Paris and the Trojan War; Nordic Loki and the apples of eternal life; and, of course, that infamous couple in the Garden. Browning leads us on a beguiling tour through the primal myths of the world's most popular fruit and then explains that the first apples appeared in Kazakhstan on the slopes of the Heavenly Mountains. He visits the apple germ-plasm repository in Geneva, New York, and describes the powerful effects of genetic engineering on the apples of the future. In Wenatchee, Washington, world capital of apple growing, he meets Mr. Granny Smith and learns about the apple's niche in the global marketplace, before setting off to sample Calvados from the pot stills of Normandy and cider from Somerset.

For the more practically inclined, Browning includes a selective listing of apple varieties, basic instructions for planting a back-yard orchard, and a selection of beloved apple recipes from around the world.

This was actually a really interesting book, and for the most part very easy to read. It had a very good "voice".

There was an obscenely long chapter that just went on and on and on about apples in Russia. Which actually would have been okay, but 80% of it was a political history of the scientific research in the former USSR. Definitely a snoozer!

I did find some informative tidbits though:

"The modern apples we find at fruit stands and supermarkets represent but a tiny slice of all the possible apples that have existed in the world. They are the descendants of thousands of years of selection for color, size, shape, and growth habits."

"Most modern Christians have grown up supposing that it was the apple that Eve snatched for Adam at the serpent's bidding, forever banishing them from Paradise. Although apples may have grown in Palestine at the time the biblical texts were written, no one thought to hang them on the tree of knowledge of good and evil until the fourth or fifth century A.D. ... The Eastern Church favored figs as the forbidden fruit, while others in the Roman Church argued for the grape."

Also, there was a bit about average apple consumption per person per year throughout the world which was really revealing.

Americans - 19 lbs
French - 33 lbs
Germans - 40 lbs
Italians - 57 lbs

The author also mentioned that he is a member of the Dwarf Fruit Tree Association. Who knew there was even such a thing! Very cool!

All in all I'd have to give this one a seven. It was informative, but rather boring in parts.

Rating: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆

Friday, November 7, 2008

Crooked House by Agatha Christie

Sophia Leonides and Charles Hayward fall in love in Egypt during World War II, and vow to meet up again in England. After the war ends, Charles fears their reunion may be interrupted when he sees an obituary for Sophia's grandfather, Aristide, in the newspaper.

The death turns out to be anything but ordinary - the rich old man's demise is mired in mysterious circumstances. Charles is put in the odd position of being both a confidante to Sophia and helping the police (and his father, a Scotland Yard commissioner) with the case.

The obvious conclusion is that Aristide's new young wife and her suspected lover killed him for his massive estate - but are things ever that simple? Suspicion falls on all members of the Leonides family, as one will disappears, another is found, and secrets are uncovered.

This was the unabridged audiobook on CD edition (5 discs/5.7 hours).

I was thrilled to discover an Agatha Christie audiobook that I had not listened to before! And to have it read by Hugh Fraser made it just that much better!

Although I was a bit disappointed that it was not a Poirot or Tommy & Tuppence, it was an entertaining book. Hugh Fraser did a wonderful job of narrating (as usual).

The story was not one of the author's best, but I've never read a Christie that I didn't at least like, so I'll give this one a seven. The characters were rather blah, but the twist ending was certainly not what I'd expected! It wasn't a "Wow! Cool!" twist, but more of a "Huh. Interesting." twist. :)

Rating: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆

Larklight: A Rousing Tale of Dauntless Pluck in the Farthest Reaches of Space by Philip Reeve

In 1851 Art Mumby, his irritating sister Myrtle, and their distracted scientist father live aboard the majestic space house Larklight with numerous robotic servants. When the word comes that a mysterious gentleman plans to visit, the house is thrown into a frenzy of preparation.

This bizarre visitor brings an army of attack spiders to their home and plans a disaster that will destroy not only the entire British Empire, but also the known universe! Art and Myrtle narrowly escape in their lifeboat, tumbling through space on a direct course for the moon. Will help from a few exotic space creatures and an extraterrestrial pirate be enough for Art and Myrtle to prevent a galactic calamity?

Author Philip Reeve was shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize Children's Book Award. His imaginative Victorian space adventure will captivate young listeners who will be thrilled by the rollicking performance from narrator Greg Steinbruner.

This was the unabridged audiobook on cassette edition (8 cassettes/8.75 hours).

The story itself was entertaining, if rather predictable in spots. I really disliked the sister though. And I'm not sure if the religiosity was a reflection of the Victorian times, or the author's own predilection, but it was very distracting. And if the word "huzzah" or however it's spelled, was used one more time I thought I would scream!

I did really enjoy the hover hogs and definitely want a crew of my own!

Perhaps I watch too much television, but I recognized definite bits of the Wizard of Oz and Doctor Who characters/situations/influences which left me slightly uncomfortable.

The reader was rather inappropriate for the book. His pauses were in the complete wrong places and he seemed rather stiff. And was he even British? So bizarre.

All in all, I'd give it a six. It was good to have read and I'm looking forward to reading the next book, Starcross.

Rating: ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch

"We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand." -Randy Pausch

A lot of professors give talks titled "The Last Lecture." Professors are asked to consider their demise and to ruminate on what matters most to them. And while they speak, audiences can't help but mull the same question: What wisdom would we impart to the world if we knew it was our last chance? If we had to vanish tomorrow, what would we want as our legacy?

When Randy Pausch, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon, was asked to give such a lecture, he didn't have to imagine it as his last, since he had recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer. But the lecture he gave—"Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams"—wasn't about dying. It was about the importance of overcoming obstacles, of enabling the dreams of others, of seizing every moment (because "time is all you have…and you may find one day that you have less than you think"). It was a summation of everything Randy had come to believe. It was about living.

In this book, Randy Pausch has combined the humor, inspiration and intelligence that made his lecture such a phenomenon and given it an indelible form. It is a book that will be shared for generations to come.

This was the unabridged audiobook on CD edition (4 discs).

I had been looking forward to reading this for some time, after hearing rave reviews about it. I have to say I was a bit disappointed. I did enjoy the book, but I didn't think it was fabulous. The stories were entertaining and the narrator did a beautiful job. There were points where I laughed, points where I teared up, and points where I was bored. I'm definitely glad it wasn't any longer than it was.

I'd give it an eight. Good, but not great.

Rating: ★★★★★★★★☆☆

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Second Nature: A Gardener's Education by Michael Pollan

"No doubt there will be setbacks - gardening is not a once-and-for-all thing - but I believe I've finally drawn a workable border between me and the advancing forest. Might it prove to be a Maginot Line? I don't think so. Because it doesn't depend on the invincibility of technology - or on the benevolence of nature. It depends on me acting like a sane and civilized human, which is to say, as a creature whose nature it is to remake his surroundings, and whose culture can guide him on questions of ethics and aesthetics. What I'm making here is a middle ground between nature and unapologetically set against it. What I'm making is a garden."

Second Nature is the lively and absorbing account of one man's experience in the garden. But this is much more than a book about gardening. In the tradition of the best American nature writing, this extraordinary book invites us to explore our unexamined feelings about nature and our place in the landscape.

Michael Pollan, Executive Editor of Harper's Magazine, brilliantly promotes the garden - rather than the wilderness - as the most appropriate site to rethink our relationship to nature and begin to place it on a saner footing. One of the best reasons to garden today, Pollan believes, is to put ourselves on the most intimate possible terms with one small corner of the universe.

Second Nature
contains a fair amount of information - there are chapters on the virtues of composting, how to plant a tree for the long haul, reading between the lines of the seed catalogs, and the secrets of the green thumb. But the book's true focus is the philosophy of gardening - what gardening has to teach us about the troubled borders between nature and culture, our attitudes toward wilderness and animals, the urgent environmental questions we face, Anglophilia and class-consciousness in the garden world, the curious politics of the American lawn, and the moral dimensions of landscape.

Funny, profound, and beautifully rendered, Second Nature has all the makings of a classic.

Having first read some of Michael Pollan's more recent books (The Omnivore's Dilemma and The Botany of Desire) I decided to go back and read this book which was published in 1991. I'm glad I did.

With his usual wit and humor he drew me into his particular garden world and kept me there, fascinated. His discussion of the merits and attitudes of various seed catalogs had me smiling the entire time!

There was also this supremely interesting paragraph where he talks about harvesting a 30 pound (!) heirloom Sibley squash from his garden. His wonderings about the miraculousness of where the harvest comes from are really profound, and funny!:

"Where did this thing, this great quantity of squash flesh come from? The earth, we say, but not really; there's no less earth now than there was in May when I planted it; none's been used up in its making. By all rights, creating something this fat should require so great an expense of matter that you'd expect to find Sibley squashes perched on the lips of fresh craters. That they're not, it seems to me, should be counted something of a miracle!"

As a book in general, I'd have to give this one an eight, but as a gardening related book it's a definite 10!

Rating: ★★★★★★★★☆☆