Mayfair Witches

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Title: Taltos

Author: Anne Rice

Copyright: 1994, Alfred Knopf

ISBN: 0-679-42573

Pages: 467

Date completed: 6/21/11

Genre: Fiction

 It has been a while since I’ve read Anne Rice, so when someone donated this book to us, I temporarily borrowed it to read.  Taltos is about the Mayfair Witches.  Kind of.  I guess it is really about the Taltos and the Mayfair Witches.  The Taltos is a race of beings who live on earth and have a life span of more than 1,000 years.  They aren’t like vampires.  Killing isn’t their primary purpose in life.  They are much more like humans. They will kill if they have to, but they’d rather live in harmony with the others on the planet.  Also, Taltos are not fond of witches.  They don’t trust them and will do what it takes to stay away from them. 

 I didn’t realize that this is the second book in the series until after I had finished it.  It didn’t seem to matter – everything in the story made sense to me without knowing the background of the first book.  But, I give you warning in case you want to read Lasher, the first book in the series, first. 

 The way this book is written, it keeps you turning the pages.  There are several very interesting characters that you want to know more about.  Besides the seven-feet tall Taltos and the Mayfair Witches, there is a man of about three feet tall who is gruff and troll-like.  He and the Taltos are best friends.  There is also a secret society of humans who protect the history of all of these non-humans.  Any good book about non-humans has to have a secret society.  I always wonder how people in a secret society make a living.  But, I digress.

 In Taltos, our main character believes that he is the last living Taltos on earth and has given up on ever finding another of his kind.  But, when he finds out that the Mayfair Witches may be able to point him toward another Taltos, he has to overcome centuries of mistrust and work with them.


A Monkey and a Donkey

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Title: Beatrice and Virgil

Author: Yann Martel

Copyright: 2010, Random House

ISBN: 978-0-8129-8154-4

Pages: 197

Date completed: 6/13/11

I generally do not gravitate toward fiction, and even less toward literature.  The difference, in my mind is that fiction is a non-true story that you read for enjoyment, whereas literature is a non-true story that you read for enjoyment, but it demands more of you.  In music terms, fiction is Bon Jovi; literature is Tchaikovsky.  Beatrice and Virgil is literature.

I’ve never read anything quite like this book.  It is a fiction story of prose with a play contained inside.  It is a truly disturbing story in the very best sense of the word.  From page to page, I never knew what to expect, and that is what kept me from putting it down.  I usually think of literature as ‘not an easy read,’ but this book was very easy to read.  A disturbing story that is very easy to read.  Seems not possible, yet Martel has accomplished it. 

I always have a hard time writing a review of fiction because I don’t want to give too much of the plot away.  So, I will do my best to intrigue you enough to read it without telling you the entire story.  Henry, the main character is a successful author who has taken a sabbatical from writing and moved to a new city where he promptly gets a job as a waiter in the local café.  Life is going along nicely, when he receives a letter from a fan of his book who has written a play.  As it turns out, the fan lives in the same city as Henry, so he stops by to see him in person.  The fan is a taxidermist by day who has written a play of Virgil (a monkey) and Beatrice (a donkey).  He asks Henry for help finishing the play.  Although he is a little weird, Henry agrees to help him, and an unusual relationship is formed.  And, here is the plot twist: this is a book about the Holocaust. 

Intrigued?  Pick up Beatrice and Virgil and read for yourself!

French Countryside meets a murder mystery

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Title: Five Quarters of the Orange

Author: Joanne Harris

Copyright: 2007, Harper Perennial

ISBN: 0061214604

Pages: 336

Date completed: 6/4/11


This is a book about a woman who came of age in France during World War II.  She was a girl of about 9 when the war started, although most of the story is told from her vantage point as a 65 year-old-woman who has returned to her childhood home. 

I don’t think this book is categorized as a mystery, although it should be.  However, it is not a story that follows the standard mystery format.  As I read, it small pieces of the mystery of our main character (Framboise Simon) are revealed, and I had that nagging sense that I wasn’t going to be able to figure it out until it was eventually spelled out for me by the author.  I was right.  I didn’t see the plot twist coming. 

Framboise Simon is raised by a mother who doesn’t appear to have any love or connection to her children.  Plagued by migraine headaches that cause her to smell oranges, she spends most of her time locked in her bedroom, leaving Framboise and her siblings to raise themselves.  After befriending a German soldier, Framboise feels like she has found her place in the world. 

As an old woman, Framboise returns to her childhood home and lives a quiet life running a café out of her home.  She is known throughout the countryside for having some of the best food, in such humble surroundings.  Framboise is using her mother’s recipes, and finds, through her hand-written notebook, the real story of her mother’s life.

Castle comes to life

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Title: Heat Wave

Date Completed: 4/25/2011

Author(s): Richard Castle

Copyright: 2009, Hyperion

# pages: 196

Genre: Fiction

ISBN: 978-1-4013-2382-0

Castle is one of my favorite shows on television, so when the show bled over into a real-life book, I was intrigued.  Heat Wave, written by the fictional main character of the show, Richard Castle, is a New York City detective story. 

 An easy read, this is a great book if you like murder mysteries.  You don’t have to know anything about the show to read the book.  When a Donald Trump-like gazillionaire in New York City is thrown from his 6th story balcony, Detective Nikki Heat is on the case.

Like every good murder mystery, all of the characters are suspects in the murder.  Just when you think you’ve got it figured out, there is an art heist thrown in the mix.

 Of course, I can’t tell you much about the book without giving it away, but I can tell you that this is would be a good summer read.  Afterall, it is called Heat Wave.

Finding happiness

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Title: The Happiness Project

Date Completed: 4/22/2011

Author(s): Gretchen Rubin

Copyright: 2009, HarperCollins

# pages: 292

Genre: Self Improvement

ISBN: 978-06-158325-4

 A lot of books where the author undertakes a year to find themselves involves moving to the other side of the earth or giving up all of their earthly goods.  For most of us, it isn’t an option because we don’t have the book advance from the publisher to live on while we are ‘finding ourselves.’  Gretchen Rubin didn’t undertake radical changes.  She didn’t move, she didn’t sell everything, and she didn’t become a vegetarian.  She just focused on the little things that she could do every day to make herself happier.  Most importantly, she was happy before she started the project.  It turns out that you don’t have to be in the middle of a crisis in order to look for happiness. 

 For me, this book falls into the ‘I’ll just read one more chapter, and then I’ll go to bed’ category.  Partly because it is a good book, but also because I’m pretty sure Gretchen and I are kindred spirits.  First of all, she is from Kansas City, and we all have a tendency to like famous, successful people from our own town.  But, also for less superficial reasons. We have a lot in common.  She does things that I do that I didn’t think anyone else on earth did.  When you find out that there is someone else in the world with the same idiosyncrasy as you, I think it is natural to feel an instant connection with them.  One of those idiosyncrasy was a major factor in me starting Building a Bookshelf.   Rubin is a voracious reader and takes notes on the books she reads, sometimes for no real reason.  I do the same thing.  I take notes, and I write book reviews.  Why?  Up until starting BaB, just because I liked to do it.  Of course, now, it is an avenue for raising money through our ongoing Read-a-Thon.  I’ve got notebooks full of obscure details from books I’ve read going back probably about 10 years. 

 One thing that I really like about this book is that it really motivates you to feel like you can make a difference in your level of happiness by making small changes.  Rubin makes happiness obtainable.   She also makes it ok for people who are already pretty happy with their lives to become more happy.  That, in my opinion, is what really sets this book apart.  You don’t have to be in a bad place in order for this book to help you become happier.  There is something for everyone in here.

Give it a Try

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Title: Poke the Box

Date Completed: 4/13/2011

Author(s): Seth Godin

Copyright: 2011, Do You Zoom, Inc.

# pages: 84

Genre: Self Improvement

ISBN: 978-1-936719-00-6

 This book is a quick little read that will inspire you to get off the couch and do something.  The main focus of the book is that you need to try different things and be willing to fail at them in order to make any meaningful progress in your life.

 If you’ve been following my book reviews, you know that this is a philosophy that I strongly believe in.  I’m a serial starter.  I fail all the time, but I’m the kind of person that gets a wild hair and gives something a go – not worried about what it will look like if I ‘fail.’  Ok, not worried all the time about what it will look like.  We all have our moments.

The overall gist of the book is that if you don’t try, you’ll never know.  It is better to try and fail than not try at all.  This is really the attitude that I had to have in order to start Building a Bookshelf.  Once I got over the worry that I might not be able to give away a huge number of books, it was much easier to start.  I went into it with the attitude that if I gave 20 kids books (which, of course, I could do on my own without starting a charity!), I would have made a difference.  And, what has happened?  We’ve given away almost 1,700 books in just under a year!

Science at the Kitchen Table

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Title: Biopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life
Date Completed: 4/9/2011
Author(s): Marcus Wohlsen
Copyright: 2011, Penguin Group USA
# pages: 209
Genre: Science
ISBN: 978-1617230028
I was lucky enough to get an advanced copy of this book before it hits the shelves (althought it was released April 15th). Those of you who read my book summaries on a regular basis will know that I flirt with science quite a bit. I guess part of being a life-long learner is that you get involved with a lot of topics that have nothing to do with your day-to-day life. This is one of them.

This is a book about a trend that is sweeping the nation – DIY science. The easiest way to explain it is to use a very familiar example: technology. In the last five years, it has become common-place for people to start technology companies out of their garage. They figure out how to build an app that integrates with Facebook and they are suddenly running a big business. Facebook didn’t give them permission or have anything to do with it. It’s what open source coding is all about. Put the code out there so that anyone can improve upon it.

DIY science is the same. There is a story about a woman who developed a test for a genetic disease in her kitchen using household appliances. Her family has the disease, and the test is very expensive, so she decided she’d create one for less. For someone like me, who didn’t even take biology in school, this seems like something that could only be done by possibly the most intelligent people on earth. I’m dumbfounded by the thought that someone could, in the comfort of their own home, invent a test that involves DNA.

I mean, it seems like DNA is such a complex piece of engineering that it must be dealt with in sterile, white labs with men and women who wear long lab coats. Not a girl in her pajamas at her kitchen table. But, that is where technology has gotten us. It is just absolutely amazing.

The book really opened up my eyes to the possibilities that are out there. If you think about where we were with internet technology 10 years ago (can you say dial-up?), and think about where we are now, apply that same leap of sea-change to science and imagine what we could accomplish.

DIY science is a reaction to the institutionalized science that is being slowed down by corporate bureaucracy. As Wohlsen points out (page 4) “…life sciences as practiced by academics, corporations, and the government are hamstrung by politics and bureaucracy in ways that make cumbersome the beneficial applications of the latest life-science discoveries. They also believe that computers, genetics, and engineering are fast converging toward a single point where tinkerers and hobbyists without advanced degrees will soon be able to perform sophisticated feats of genetic engineering at home.”

This is a great book for anyone who has an interest in science, or wants to see advances in medicine at greater rates that we’ve seen them so far. You don’t have to know science to read this book. It is written so that people with no scientific background can understand the science. If you’ve got a teenager with an interest in science, you should have them read this book. It will inspire them to broaden their horizons beyond the typical research lab.

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