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February 2008 Reads, Rants and Ratings

Donna Chavez is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and the American Library Association's Booklist. She is also a freelance writer and a writing coach who has numerous publishing credits, including the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun Tim...

The month was top notch

What a great reading month! There's something really good here for just about every taste. Whether it's crime fiction, mystery, general fiction or nonfiction that floats your boat, take a look at these; almost any one of which would make a terrific book club selection.
The month was top notchMoney Shot byChrista Faust, crime fiction, 4.5/5: Faust busts into the boys' club that is Dorchester's Hard Case Crime Series with this gripping debut about retired porn star Angel Dare who now owns Daring Angels, a "high-class adult modeling agency." When Angel finds herself stuffed into the trunk of a beat up Honda Civic — beaten, raped, shot and left for dead — after a visit from a foreign waif who's looking for one of Angel's clients she engages the help of her part time security guy, Lalo Malloy. The two of them take on bad guys from the sordid sex slave business and, well, while they don't exactly win, they don't exactly lose either. You gotta read it to know. I liked Angel a lot and hope Faust pens more of her adventures sometime soon.
The month was top notchThe Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta, fiction, 4/5: After high school sex ed teacher and single mom Ruth Ramsey is directed by the administration to teach abstinence only — a policy she disagrees with — she makes an offhand remark in class that puts her job in jeopardy. Meanwhile her daughter's born-again Christian soccer coach, Tim Mason, risks his own job when he leads the girls in a team prayer. Ruth wants him outta there and she sets out to make sure he won't ever mix sports with religion again. Perrotta (Little Children), who likes to explore what happens when people become involved in unusual relationships, reaches a personal best here as these two face off against each other and suffer the consequences of the force of their own convictions.
The month was top notchThe Senator's Wife by Sue Miller, fiction, 4.5/5: Delia Naughton is the perfect wife for former senator and ladies' man Tom Naughton. Over the decades she tolerated his womanizing while his charisma charmed voters and colleagues alike; a much admired statesman. Once he retired, however, Delia and Tom parted ways. No divorce. They simply live amicably apart. She enjoys life in half of a historic New England duplex and keeps an apartment in Paris that she visits twice a year. Tom drops in for holidays with the children and the occasional romantic romp. They're in their 70s when Meri Fowler and her college professor husband, Nathan, move into the other half of the duplex. Although Meri and Delia become friends the elder woman keeps her private life to herself, testing Meri's ability to control her curiosity. Miller has a knack for full, rich character portrayals. I liked this one because of that and the way the relationship between the two women evolves. You really get a sense of each person's psyche.
The month was top notchOscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance by Giles Brandreth, mystery, 5/5: Another really good one. This one is for fans of mystery, literature and history. Flamboyant author and playwright Oscar Wilde discovers the body of a young man, an artist's model, who has been murdered in a ritualistic way. But by the time he returns to the scene of the crime the body is gone and the place has been wiped clean of evidence. No one seems much interested in the case, however, since the teen was considered a runaway, a street kid. Through a mutual friend, poet Robert Sherard, Wilde meets Arthur Conan Doyle and enlists the man's help in trying to solve the murder. Between Doyle, Wilde and Sherard they track down the murderer with Wilde utilizing some of Sherlock Holmes' best techniques. What a fun read!! It's devilishly clever and kept my rapt interest up to the very end. Read it. You'll enjoy!
The month was top notchHome School by Charles Webb, fiction, 5/5: If you've ever wondered what happened to Benjamin and Elaine (of The Graduate fame) after he interrupted her wedding Webb herewith provides the answer. Eleven years later they're married, living in a suburb of New York City (far away from Mrs. Robinson) and they're home schooling their two young sons. But the local school's administration is giving them a hard time about it, trying to force them to enroll the boys in regular school. Pushed up against a wall Ben and Elaine have to resort to desperate measures, seeking help from the dreaded mother-in-law who has been all but court-ordered to maintain a distance from the family. The worried parents also go to their home schooling mentors, a far out hippy-dippy couple — she's still breastfeeding her son who is 11 -- from Vermont who end up being no help at all. I laughed out loud throughout this book. That Mrs. Robinson is still the same and that Benjamin hasn't changed a bit — still that hesitant, deadpan way of dealing with life — make this my favorite read so far this year.
The month was top notchBy the Time You Read This by Giles Blunt, mystery/police procedural, 4/5: Detective John Cardinal of the Algonquin Bay, Ontario police department suspects his wife's death — a fall from the roof of an apartment building — is murder despite the fact that she left a suicide note and was being treated for severe depression. But the department has labeled it a suicide, so…case closed. Meanwhile Cardinal's partner, Lise Delorme, is investigating internet child pornography that seems linked to their community. Cardinal tries his best to help her even though he shouldn't really be back at work so soon after losing his wife and even though he's secretly investigating "murder" clues to her so-called suicide. Blunt keeps the tension going at a slow-but-steady (may be too laid back for some) pace throughout, but I liked the characters and was curious enough about how all this was going wrap up so I kept reading.
The month was top notchAn Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England: A Novel by Brock Clarke, fiction, 3.5/5: Raise your hand if you've ever picked up a book on the strength of it's cover picture or title alone. Uh huh. You've probably guessed what attracted me to this one. While I've found that most of the time the catchy title ends up being the best part of the book, this one was kind of an exception. Kind of, I say, because overall it left me rather unimpressed but it does have moments of brilliance. The main character, Sam Pulsifer, became an accidental arsonist/murderer at 18 when his careless cigarette caused a fire in the museum/home of Emily Dickinson. He was sent to prison and emerges ten years later a raging neurotic. Of course, he had been more than a little on the way to full-blown neurosis before the fire. But when he gets out of prison and tries to re-invent himself as normal the result is a disaster. When the museum/homes of other authors begin burning down Sam looks to the pile of hate mail that accumulated while he was in prison for clues as to who is trying to frame him for the fires. Clarke has a gift for the humorous turn of phrase (my favorite is: "There is something underwhelming about scholarly hate mail -- the sad literary allusions, the refusal to use contractions.") and a gift for creating a perfectly annoying protagonist, but in the end I felt this book was a bit too long.
The month was top notch
Where Did I Leave My Glasses? The What, When, and Why of Normal Memory Loss
by Martha Weinman Lear, nonfiction, 4.5/6: Relax. Odds are very good that those frequent, irritating lapses of memory are perfectly normal, says Lear. Once she experienced — or noticed she was experiencing — forgetfulness she decided to do a little research on the topic. The result is this easy-reading-but-informative book that ought to reassure those boomers among us she refers to as the "worried well" that we are most likely not headed for the straight jacket just yet, or ever. However, for those in the workplace who must compete with the sharp-as-a-tack minds of those smart-alecky twenty-somethings she offers a selection of antidotes and exercises that should help stave off memory loss for a certain amount of time at least. As for the future, well, she learned about a number of treatments ranging from pills to surgery to robotics that may or may not prove to be all that they promise.

My rating system for books is:
5 = An extraordinary book! I will keep it to read again and again!
4.5 = This book is either very clever, highly creative or brings new information to the table. I'm recommending it to my friends.
4 = This book accomplishes all the author seems to have intended. (I "get" it.)
3.5 = This book held my interest regardless of topic/genre.
3 = I enjoyed reading and/or I learned something from this book
2.5 = I could have easily put this book down and forgotten about it.
2 = This book is either poorly written or seems underdeveloped, like an out-of-focus photo. (I don't "get" it.)
1 = Don't bother.

Donna Chavez is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and the American Library Association's Booklist. She is also a freelance writer and a writing coach. She has numerous publishing credits, including the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun Times, Glancer and Shore magazines. Visit her website http://www.thewritecoach.com.

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