Friday, July 19, 2013

BOOKISH ART: The Story Coaster


Thursday, July 18, 2013

Introducing... Die for You by Lisa Unger

Introducing books through the first chapter or so...

A light snow falls, slowly coating the deep-red rooftops of Prague. I look up into a chill gunmetal sky as the gray stones beneath me are already disappearing under a blanket of white. There's a frigid hush over the square. Shops are closed, chairs perched upside down on cafe' tables. In the distance I hear church bells. A strong wind sighs and moans, picks up some stray papers and dances them past me. The morning would be beautiful in its blustery quiet if it weren't in so much pain-- if I weren't so cold.

The side of my body that rests against the ground is stiff and numb. With difficulty, sore muscles protesting, I struggle to sit. I use the back of a park bench to pull myself to my feet. With the harsh wind pulling at my cuffs and collar, I wonder, How long have I been lying on the freezing stone, in the middle of this empty square? How did I get here? The last thing I remember is a question I asked of a young girl with tattoos on her face. I remember her eyes-- very young, damaged, afraid.

-- Die for You by Lisa Under

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

REVIEW: The Aviator's Wife by Melanie Benjamin


For much of her life, Anne Morrow, the shy daughter of the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, has stood in the shadows of those around her, including her millionaire father and vibrant older sister, who often steals the spotlight. Then Anne, a college senior with hidden literary aspirations, travels to Mexico City to spend Christmas with her family. There she meets Colonel Charles Lindbergh, fresh off his celebrated 1927 solo flight across the Atlantic. Enthralled by Charles’s assurance and fame, Anne is certain the celebrated aviator has scarcely noticed her. But she is wrong.

Charles sees in Anne a kindred spirit, a fellow adventurer, and her world will be changed forever. The two marry in a headline-making wedding. Hounded by adoring crowds and hunted by an insatiable press, Charles shields himself and his new bride from prying eyes, leaving Anne to feel her life falling back into the shadows. In the years that follow, despite her own major achievements—she becomes the first licensed female glider pilot in the United States—Anne is viewed merely as the aviator’s wife. The fairy-tale life she once longed for will bring heartbreak and hardships, ultimately pushing her to reconcile her need for love and her desire for independence, and to embrace, at last, life’s infinite possibilities for change and happiness.

Drawing on the rich history of the twentieth century—from the late twenties to the mid-sixties—and featuring cameos from such notable characters as Joseph Kennedy and Amelia Earhart, The Aviator’s Wife is a vividly imagined novel of a complicated marriage—revealing both its dizzying highs and its devastating lows. With stunning power and grace, Melanie Benjamin provides new insight into what made this remarkable relationship endure.

Hardcover, 416 pages
Published January 15th 2013 by Delacorte Press (first published January 1st 2013)
ISBN 0345528670 (ISBN13: 9780345528674)

About the Author

Melanie Benjamin is the author of the national bestseller, ALICE I HAVE BEEN, THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MRS. TOM THUMB, as well as the forthcoming THE AVIATOR'S WIFE, a novel about Anne Morrow Lindbergh. She lives in the Chicago area with her husband and two sons. She's currently at work on her next historical novel.

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My Thoughts
He is flying.
This is the fictional account of aviator Charles Lindbergh and his wife Anne Morrow. Anne was the shy sister-- socially awkward and quiet-- when she meet Charles Lindbergh at a family party. In the story, she is shocked to discover that Lindbergh is interested in her, rather than her sister Elizabeth (the sickly yet pretty one that was socially in demand). After a rather sedate courtship, Lindbergh and Anne were married in May 1929.

Soon she is Lindbergh's partner, learning everything she can about flying and soon sharing the workload on the worldwide flights together. Yet this was the 30s, and Anne was simply seen as the wife of Charles Lindbergh, despite her personal accomplishments.
I had just become the first American woman to fly a glider. (p. 94)
I was asked by female reporters how I intended to set up housekeeping in a plane, even as my fingers nervously tapped out practice messages in the Morse code I had been studying for weeks-- Engine failure. Send help. Location unknown. Not once was I queried about my technical skills, even though I was to be the radio operator on this trip. (p. 136)
In 1930, their first son Charles Jr. was born.
Some in Congress suggested his birth be declared a national holiday. (p. 118)
Seriously? Members of Congress were talking about making the baby's birth a national holiday? C'mon!

And, of course, that little baby was quite famously kidnapped for ransom at 20 months of age. Probably the most famous kidnapping in history. (His body was found months later about 4 miles from his home. It is speculated that the kidnapper dropped him when the ladder broke as he carried Charles Jr. down, and the infant died.)

Did you know that Colonel H. Norman Schwarzkopf, who headed up the investigation on the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh Jr., was the father of Stormin' Norman Schwarzkopf of Desert Storm fame?

I found some of the dialogue to be unrealistic. For example:
"It's just so strange, to think of you like that," Ansy continued, laughing merrily. "I mean-- look at you! You're, well-- you're Mother. Father's the pilot, the hero. You take care of us, and the house, but to think of you up in the air, in your own little airplane!" (p. 283) 
That was supposed to be the 10-year-old daughter Anne speaking to her mother Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Sorry, but that does not sound like any 10-year-old I know. But who knows. Not having kids, maybe I'm wrong. Maybe that's what 10-year-olds commonly sound like.

A little personal note: Anne fled to Captiva Island, which is a local island here in town, after her husband won the Pulitzer for his auto-biography and failed to thank her for her help in writing the book, and instead thanked the Wright Brothers.

The author outlined her goal in a note at the end of the book:
...I wanted to make Anne the heroine of her own story, finally-- as in memory (both her written accounts and the public's perception), she is far too often overshadowed by the dominant personality that is Charles Lindbergh. (p. 336)
I think this book succeeded on that point. You find yourself frustrated with the lack of acknowledgement of her accomplishments, since she did some pretty amazing things.
My final word: The book isn't poorly written, isn't horribly boring or filled with drivel. It simply wasn't very exciting, nor did I find it very interesting. I didn't find myself hanging on the book's every word, wondering what would happen next. In fact, it was so forgettable that I didn't think I had finished it, since I couldn't remember anything about the ending. So I picked it up to finish it, and found I recognized everything I was reading, and realized I'd finished this book a month or so ago, and totally forgot it. I thought Lindbergh was really unlikable. I just don't get the public's love affair with him. He was sympathetic to Hitler, and yet they loved him. He could do no wrong. This is one of those books that I would have been happy to have never read, even though I like Melanie Benjamin's writing well enough.
...hatred doesn't require a common language to be understood. (p. 246)
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My Rating: 


REVIEW and GIVEAWAY: The Never List by Koethi Zan


The most relentless, deeply disturbing thriller writer since Jeffery Deaver and Gillian Flynn

For years, best friends Sarah and Jennifer kept what they called the “Never List”: a list of actions to be avoided, for safety’s sake, at all costs. But one night, against their best instincts, they accept a cab ride with grave, everlasting consequences. For the next three years, they are held captive with two other girls in a dungeon-like cellar by a connoisseur of sadism.

Ten years later, at thirty-one, Sarah is still struggling to resume a normal life, living as a virtual recluse under a new name, unable to come to grips with the fact that Jennifer didn’t make it out of that cellar. Now, her abductor is up for parole and Sarah can no longer ignore the twisted letters he sends from jail.

Finally, Sarah decides to confront her phobias and the other survivors—who hold their own deep grudges against her. When she goes on a cross-country chase that takes her into the perverse world of BDSM, secret cults, and the arcane study of torture, she begins unraveling a mystery more horrifying than even she could have imagined.

A shocking, blazingly fast read, Koethi Zan’s debut is a must for fans of Karin Slaughter, Laura Lippman, and S.J. Watson.

Hardcover, 320 pages
Expected publication: July 16th 2013 by Pamela Dorman Books 

ISBN  0670026514 (ISBN13: 9780670026517)

About the Author
from Goodreads

When Koethi Zan was born in the sleepy farming town of Opp, Alabama, the “City of Opportunity,” her mother was Valedictorian of the local public high school and her father the star of its football team. Her parents named her after the homecoming queen of Lurleen B. Wallace Junior College, perhaps hopeful that some of that glory would rub off on her.

But Koethi would never be a homecoming queen. In fact, she spent most of her youth in her room, reading, listening to Morrissey, and avoiding everything connected to high school football—not an easy task in those parts.

After graduation, Koethi put herself through Birmingham-Southern College with scholarships and a small “cow fund” courtesy of Molly, the Charolais heifer she’d received as her third birthday present. She used the money wisely, travelling to New Orleans on the weekends to hit the club scene, almost always in silver-sequined costume, surrounded by transvestites, Goth kids and her gay male entourage. Perhaps, in some roundabout way, she had fulfilled her homecoming queen destiny after all.

Then, in what may have been a misguided fit of pique, Koethi threw away her all-black daywear and her thrift-store evening gowns, and went to Yale Law School, with some vague idea of becoming a film producer. Afterwards, however, she unexpectedly found herself twenty-eight stories up in the Manhattan offices of Davis Polk & Wardwell, a prestigious white shoe law firm that represented mostly investment banks. She regularly pulled all-nighters working on secured financings and revolving credit facilities. She tended to wear demure black pantsuits, with her hair up. 

It didn’t take her long to realize corporate life wasn’t for her, and Koethi spent the next fifteen years practicing entertainment law both in private practice (at Paul Weiss Rifkind Wharton & Garrison and, later, Schreck Rose & Dapello) and in-house business and legal affairs positions (for the film producer, Ed Pressman, and, most recently, at MTV), with a slight detour along the way to study cinema at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. 

As an entertainment lawyer, Koethi attended glamorous premieres and openings, international film festivals and celebrity-filled parties. She dealt with gritty production issues as varied as suicide threats, drug overdoses and sex-tape allegations. She warred with Hollywood agents and befriended reality stars.

Then, while Senior Vice President & Deputy General Counsel at MTV, she decided to fulfill a lifelong dream on the side, and in the early mornings she wrote a crime novel, The Never List.
Now, coming full circle in a way, Koethi, her husband, Stephen Metcalf, and their two daughters, live in an old farmhouse in a rural community in upstate New York. Her husband occasionally watches a football game on television. But her daughters have never even heard of homecoming queens.

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My Thoughts
There were four of us down there for the first thirty-two months and eleven days of our captivity. And then, very suddenly and without warning, there were three. Even though the fourth person hadn't made any noise at all in several months, the room got very quiet when she was gone. For a long time after that, we sat in silence, in the dark, wondering which of us would be next in the box.
This is the story of three women, held captive and tortured for years by a sadist, and now 10 years free and still attempting to deal with the results of their ordeal. One of the women is on a quest to find out what happened to her friend Jennifer, the fourth girl who died during their captivity.

Of course, first I must state the obvious and point out the crazy coincidence that this book was released right around the time that the three girls were rescued in Cleveland after ten years of captivity.

The story was intriguing. And at times the writing could be quite engaging. However one thing that really bugged me was the dialogue between the girls. It felt unauthentic, stiff and formal. Usually I am a dialogue reader-- it's what I prefer. Not this time. I came to dread the dialogue, as everything else in the story was so much better written. For example, just after the girls met, one of the girls says to the other, "I'm very sorry you've had to join us. You look like a nice kid. It's a shame. the other girl-- you know her?-- has saved one of us from something we were very afraid of, and so, I must admit, for that we are very glad." (page 26)

Sorry. I just can't picture this formal and stilted way of speaking coming from a girl who has been isolated and chained in a basement, tortured over a period of time. What a weird way for her to greet the new girl on the scene!  "I'm very sorry you've had to join us"?

And then there's this cringe-worthy passage.
"...One john is easier than hundreds of johns. Simple math. With one john, I don't care how psycho he is, you can figure him out a little bit. Understand how he works. Plan ahead. Manipulate. Not a lot. But enough to make it hurt a little less. When you've got new johns all the time, who the hell knows." (page 213)
Now I say this as someone who has tried her hand at writing, and realized just how difficult it is to write well. This dialogue looks like something I would have written, and I cringe a bit when I read my own dialogue. So I am wielding the same criticism against this author that I wield against myself!

There were also a few strangely worded passages, such as one moment when the term "violent outbreak" was used, which sounded very awkward, rather than the use of the common phrase "violent outburst".

At times the story was bogged down by "tedious techie drivel".
"With this particular app," she explained, "you can share your GPS location with others in real time. Jim downloaded the app, and we connected. Then he could track me as I followed the van."

I nodded my head appreciatively. Naturally, Christine had the latest, most advanced technology. (page 221)

And there were times the story was just plain ridiculous, such as when this girl just decides to leave after having been rescued.
"You're leaving? Don't they need to take your statement? To make sure they have all the evidence they can get?"

..."Nah, they've got plenty of stories to go on..." (page 224)
Uh, yeah. You are a central figure in a major crime, and the FBI is going to let you just walk out, because there are plenty of other victims and witnesses to talk to. They can get by without you...NOT!

And again at another point when the girls get out of protective custody with no trouble at all. As if you can be in protective custody with the FBI, and then can just call up someone and say, "Uh, we decided we don't want to be protected any longer. We're leaving." And whoever is on the other line just says, "Okay. We'll call our guy back to the office. Take care, and good luck! We'll contact you when we need your testimony for the criminal case!", and doesn't even contact the head detective on the case to get his input or to alert him.

My final word:  This story had its moments. It wasn't generally gratuitously violent or gory. (Considering the context, I feared I may be walking into something like the movie "Hostel", and was happy to see it was not.) Some of the writing was pretty good, and the story kept me guessing, wondering what would come next. There was a nice twist at the end that made the story ultimately satisfying. But I struggled with the dialogue and some of the characters, and some things were just plain ridiculous. I recommend this book, but not without reservations.

Buy Now:

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Cover: B-
Writing Style:

My Rating:

GIVEAWAY: The publicist has generously offered a copy of The Never List to one of my readers. To enter, just complete the form below. Sorry, but this giveaway is open to US residents only.


I received a copy of this book to review through Netgalley, in exchange for my honest opinion. I was not financially compensated in any way, and the opinions expressed are my own and based on my observations while reading this novel.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

ARTICLE SHARING: shares their Young Adult Summer Reading List flow chart

It's that time of year again-- summer break! And is once again offering up a Young Adult Summer Reading List flow chart. Great for young adults and adults alike, this list will help guide you to your next YA read. Check it out!

The Young Adult Summer Reading Flowchart
Brought to you by

REVIEW: Eat Your Vegetables: Bold Recipes for the Single Cook by Joe Yonan


A collection of eclectic vegetarian and vegan recipes for singles as well as lone vegetarians in meat-eating households, from the beloved Washington Post editor and author of Serve Yourself.

An increasing number of Americans are turning to plant-based diets, both for their health and the economic benefits. And for many, they are the only one in their household who has made the change--making it the perfect time for this book of vegetarian, flexitarian, and vegan recipes specifically sized for single portions. In addition to 80 delectable and satisfying recipes, Eat Your Vegetables features essays on moving beyond mock meat and the evolution of vegetarian restaurants, as well as economical tips for shopping for, storing, and reusing ingredients.

Hardcover, 204 pages
Expected publication: August 6th 2013 by Ten Speed Press
ISBN 1607744422 (ISBN13: 9781607744429)

About the Author

Joe Yonan is the two-time James Beard Award-winning Food and Travel editor of The Washington Post and the author of “Serve Yourself: Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One,” which Serious Eats called “a truly thoughtful, useful, and incredibly delicious book.” He was born in Georgia and raised in Texas, moving to Boston after college to work in newspapers. He was a food writer and Travel section editor at The Boston Globe before moving to Washington in 2006 to edit the Post’s Food section, for which he also writes an award-winning monthly column and occasional feature stories. His work from the Globe and Post has appeared in three editions of the “Best Food Writing” anthology.

Joe is spending the year in North Berwick, Maine, on leave from the Post to work on two more book projects.

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My Thoughts

I have been a pescatarian for 3 years, which means that I eat fish and seafood, but no red meat, pork or poultry. So that means that I eat a lot of vegetarian dishes. I am also single, so that also means that I often have to make way more food than I need.

This book is designed to address both of these issues, as it is vegetarian cooking for one or two people. There is even a handy section that has a list of suggestions for recipes in the book to help you use things like a half of an avocado, or a half a lime, or 1/2 a can of beans, knowing that the biggest problem with cooking when you are single is the leftover ingredients.

The author includes a guide to using the book, and encourages readers/cooks to merely use the recipes as a guide, not as a rule book. I tried several of the recipes. The Fusilli with Corn Sauce (whole wheat pasta, sauteed onions and corn) was fresh tasting and easy to make. The Enfrijoladas with Egg, Avocado and Onion (corn tortillas coated in a bean sauce and topped with copped hard boiled egg, avocado and onion) was a surprising mix of flavors that actually worked well together, despite my reservations. But the best was the Roasted Sweet Potato with Coconut, Dates and Walnuts:

Roasted Sweet Potato with Coconut, Dates and Walnuts

1 small sweet potato (6-8 oz)
1 tbs raw unsalted walnut halves
1 tsp virgin coconut oil (may substitute butter, olive oil or walnut oil)
Kosher or sea salt
1 tsp finely shredded unsweetened coconut
2 or 3 pitted dates, preferably Medjool, chopped
1 tbs large unsweetened coconut flakes

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Use a fork or sharp knife to prick the sweet potato in several places. Place on a piece of aluminum foil and bake until the potato is tender and can be easily squeezed, 30-40 minutes. (Alternatively, to speed up the process, the pricked sweet potato can be microwaved on high for 1 minute, then carefully transferred to a piece of foil and into the oven. Bake until the potato is tender, 20-30 minutes.)

While the potato is baking, sprinkle the walnuts into a small skillet over medium-high heat. Cook, shaking the pan frequently, until the nuts start to brown and become fragrant, a few minutes. Immediately transfer them to a place to cool; if you leave them to cool in the pan, they can burn. Once they are cool, chop them.

Transfer the sweet potato to a serving plate. Use a knife to slash it open, then spoon the coconut oil on top, mashing it in. Sprinkle with salt to taste, then add the finely shredded coconut, walnuts, dates and large coconut flakes, and eat.

Oh so good! I used pecans rather than walnuts, and I could only find regular sweetened coconut, but who cares? The way that the sweetness of the dates contrasts with the sea salt, the richness added by the coconut oil, the nuttiness of the toasted nuts. A definite keeper!

This book was filled with lots of pretty pictures that made everything look so tasty! The only real negative that I have is that there were several things I'm not big on like curry and tofu, and things I'm hesitant about trying like Kimchi. So there were a lot of recipes that I didn't want to try right now-- but that's just me!

My final word: Easy recipes for weeknight dining. Interesting flavor combinations. Nothing ordinary here. If you are looking for some fresh ideas for easy vegetarian dining for one or two, grab this book!

My Rating: 


I received a copy of this book to review through Netgalley, in exchange for my honest opinion. I was not financially compensated in any way, and the opinions expressed are my own and based on my observations while reading this novel. The book that I received was an uncorrected proof.

AUTHOR Q&A: The Never List by Koethi Zan

A conversation with Koethi Zan, author of...


Q. Where did the inspiration for THE NEVER LIST come from?

A. THE NEVER LIST was inspired in part by the amazing stories of captivity survivors: Elizabeth Fritzl, Natascha Kampusch, Sabine Dardenne, Jaycee Lee Dugard. These women have suffered through the absolute worst thing I can imagine and every one of them has demonstrated incredible strength in the wake of such trauma. My own difficult life struggles paled in comparison. I was—and am—in awe of them. I wanted to create a character like that: a woman who was strong in the face of unfathomable horror, but who needed to confront her past to figure that out.

Q. THE NEVER LIST echoes recent events in the news even though you wrote it long before those events came to light in May 2013.  How did you feel when you heard about the women in Cleveland and have you heard any early feedback about the eerie similarities between life and art here?  If the news about Cleveland had broken while you were writing your novel, would those events have changed the storyline in any way?

A. I was stunned when the news broke about the Cleveland kidnappings, and it only became more surreal as the story unfolded. I’d written a book based on my worst nightmare, and there it was on the screen—real.  And even worse than the story I’d invented. 

Dozens of friends contacted me in those first few days, recognizing the obvious similarities and thinking I would have some special insight into the situation.  But I didn’t have any answers for them.  I don’t know how or why these terrible things happen.  Writing my book was just my way of trying to understand the hardships and strength of the women whose stories inspired me.  All I know is that I am so happy that Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight are finally free, and I hope they are able to recover from such an unfathomable tragedy. 

It’s hard to say what I would have done had the story come to light while I was writing the book. However, even if I had changed some of the plot details, the essential narrative would still have been the one I felt driven to tell: the story of a woman who survived an awful, traumatic experience and her struggle to recover by facing her past.  My book was written from the heart, with great empathy and respect for abduction survivors.  The timing of this revelation doesn’t change that; it only makes my feelings for all these amazing women that much stronger.

Q. What made you want to be a writer? Did you always want to be a writer when you were growing up?

A. I was raised in a family of scientists in a house that had only one small bookcase. And unfortunately that bookcase was filled with chemistry and engineering textbooks. When I was nine, however, I found at the bottom of a drawer my mother’s Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volumes I and II, from her one required freshman English class. After that I pretty much survived childhood by reading.

If you’d asked me at twelve, I would have said all I ever wanted to be was a writer, but I lost my nerve somewhere along the way and opted for a steadier career path. I was estranged from my parents after high school and ran out of money fast, so it seemed important at the time to find a secure way to support myself. So I ended up at Yale Law School, which was a pretty great safety net.

I was drawn to the world of writers, though, so perhaps it was inevitable. I married a writer and as a lawyer I represented writers. My favorite New Yorker cartoon sums it up: a little boy in a cowboy costume says to his father, “Well, if I can’t be a cowboy, I’ll be a lawyer for cowboys.” So now I’m finally a cowboy.

Q. How would you describe your book to someone you’d just met?

A. I like to say it’s a psychological thriller about girls held captive in a basement crossed with a trauma recovery memoir—sort of as if the girl in that basement from Silence of the Lambs ended up hunting down Hannibal Lecter.

Q. Do you have a “Never List” of your own?

A. I don’t have an actual written list, but I do have a jumble of informal rules that my best friend and I developed in high school. We didn’t need to write anything down because we lived by them everyday as we navigated our way through our odd adventures: staying out all night, going to unsavory clubs, hanging out with strange characters. I have written Sarah and Jennifer’s Never List, however, and expect to add to it, perhaps even with suggestions from readers.

Q. The relationships between the female characters are crucial to THE NEVER LIST—who are your favorite female characters in fiction?

A. As I thought about this question, it struck me that the first names to come to mind were all young girls: Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird, Matilda, Pippi Longstocking, Jo from Little Women, Cassandra from I Capture the Castle, Catherine of the early chapters of Wuthering Heights. These characters are all smart, tough and insightful individuals who follow their own way.

It’s telling that so many of the strongest, surest female characters haven’t yet reached maturity, while some of the adult characters I love are ruined or deeply flawed: Anna Karenina, Isabel Archer, Lily Bart. Yes, they are more complex and challenging, but in a way, my true heroes are the girls who haven’t been taught to doubt their strength yet. My life goal is to get back to that place, and to keep my daughters there.

Q. Did you do any research before you began writing your book?

A. I spent the past ten or so years researching it indirectly. My unofficial hobby—one I would never put on my resume—was obsessively studying psychopaths, captives, and the criminal mind.  Also, I took a brief detour from law in the early 2000s to go to graduate school in Cinema Studies. There I studied Surrealism with the incredible Annette Michelson, who, let’s just say, has a penchant for the dark side. So in many ways it was as if I was preparing for the book for years without knowing it.While writing the book, I did formal research into BDSM, abnormal psychology, victimological studies, statistical analysis, you know – the usual. My computer got a lot of viruses, and I saw a lot of disturbing text and images that are etched in my brain forever.

Q. Do you feel your own life experience has contributed to the book in any specific ways?

A. Definitely. Although I have thankfully never experienced what my characters went through, the broadest themes were drawn from my own emotional life. Sarah, Tracy, Christine and Adele each have a different response to the traumatic events of their collective past, and I’ve experienced them all for better or worse: anxiety, anger, repression, ambition. I’ve worked with a wonderful therapist on and off for a decade—our relationship is definitely not the model for Sarah and Dr. Simmons—but my own process helped me understand what it’s like to go back and face a dark past.

Specifics from my own life influenced many of the details of the book as well.  My relationship with my best friend was the model for the friendship between Sarah and Jennifer. While the story is obviously fiction, the powerful, intense nature of their friendship is rooted in ours, and their paranoia and obsession with precautions are magnified versions of our own.

Also, I went to college in Birmingham, Alabama, and my friends and I spent many weekends in New Orleans, wreaking all manner of havoc. We lived a pretty wild life—hitting the club scene, dressing up in costume, crashing with strangers. We woke up one morning to find we were staying with a guy who honestly believed he was a vampire. That was a bit of a wakeup call.

While I was in college, I also had a brush with a spiritual cult. My roommate and I went to regular meetings for a couple of months, where we were instructed in a bizarre cosmology and taught to be “present to the moment.” It was an interesting life experience that we didn’t take very seriously. Then we reached the level where we were invited to attend a weekend retreat in honor of a visiting guru from New York City. We had to scrape the floors of a house we were renovating for the group, do special “sacred” movements to music, and were expected to meditate for hours. I’m not ashamed to say I feigned illness, got out of there fast, and never went back.

Q. Which writers do you enjoy reading?

A. Mostly I read at either one of two extremes: nineteenth century/early twentieth century marriage plot novels and dark psychological crime. My favorites aren’t especially original: Tolstoy, Dickens, Austen, Wharton, Zola, Eliot, and Nabokov. And I always recommend a couple of books I think are underappreciated: Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh and Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time.  Some of my favorite crime writers (construed broadly) are Patricia Highsmith, Graham Greene, Shirley Jackson, Henning Mankell, Ruth Rendell and Dorothy L. Hughes. I can’t understand why everyone in the world hasn’t read We Have Always Lived in the Castle because it is a perfect, perfect book.

Q. Where do you like to write—and how?

A. I wrote THE NEVER LIST down in a stonewalled basement, which was fitting. I got up at five a.m. five days a week and wrote for exactly one hour before my kids got up. I gave myself a minimum of five hundred words to do in that hour (which I later increased to six hundred), so there was no time for writer’s block or self-doubt. I only knew the broad strokes of the story, so each day was a new revelation, as I would find out what was going to happen as I went.

Now I’ve moved to another house, so I don’t have that wonderful basement anymore. In fact, I have a large, bright sunny office with a beautiful view of the Berkshires, where I absolutely never, ever work. I end up at the banquette in my kitchen, mostly so I can sit cross-legged.

I’m writing two books now, and I do a thousand words on each a day. On the first draft, I focus on getting the story down, knowing I will re-write each line a thousand times. For one of these books I have a relatively detailed outline that I more or less stick to, but for the other I’m letting it unfold as I go. I like to get my word count done first thing in the morning; otherwise it hangs over my head. After every five hundred words, I get a ten-minute internet break, then—provided I’m not traumatized by what I’ve found there—it’s back to work.

I'd like to thank Koethi for stopping by for a little Q&A, and want to remind my readers that The Never List goes on sale today. And come back tomorrow for my review, and for a giveaway of an e-book copy of The Never List!

Hardcover, 320 pages
Expected publication: July 16th 2013 by Pamela Dorman Books
ISBN 0670026514 (ISBN13: 9780670026517)

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Introducing... The Never List by Koethi Zan

Introducing books through the first chapter or so...

There were four of us down there for the first thirty-two months and eleven days of our captivity. And then, very suddenly and without warning, there were three. Even though the fourth person hadn't made any noise at all in several months, the room got very quiet when she was gone. For a long time after that, we sat in silence, in the dark, wondering which of us would be next in the box.

-- The Never List by Koethi Zan

Friday, July 5, 2013

DNF: The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

I am abandoning this book. It's not that it is "bad" per se, but I just can't get into it right now. The writing style is not really a comfortable fit for me, and I have so many other books to get to that I just can't waste too much time trying to muddle through a book I'm really not enjoying.

I was reading this for my book club. I'll be meeting with them this weekend to see what the rest of the group thought about it.

UPDATE 7/8/13: I had my book club meeting this past weekend, and the consensus was that this was not a great book, and everyone seemed hesitant to recommend it to anyone. Several people were like me and had not finished the story, and those who had seemed let down by the ending. Nearly everyone gave it a "C" rating. One gave it a "B", and another a "D", but the majority agreed it was mediocre at best.

REVIEW: Fahim Speaks: A Warrior-Actor's Odyssey from Afghanistan to Hollywood and Back by Fahim Fazli with Michael Moffett


Fahim Fazli is a man of two worlds: Afghanistan, the country of his birth, and America, the nation he adopted and learned to love. He’s also a man who escaped oppression, found his dream profession, and then paid it all forward by returning to Afghanistan as an interpreter with the U.S. Marines. When Fahim speaks, the story he tells is harrowing, fascinating, and inspiring. Born and raised in Kabul, Fahim saw his country and family torn apart by revolution and civil war. Dodging Afghan authorities and informers with his father and brother, Fahim made his way across the border to Pakistan and then to America. After reuniting with his mother, sisters, and another brother, he moved to California with dreams of an acting career. After 15 turbulent years that included two unsuccessful arranged marriages to Afghan brides, he finally qualified for membership in the Screen Actors Guild—and found true American love. Though Fahim's California life was happy and rewarding, he kept thinking about the battlefields of Afghanistan. Haunted by a desire to serve his adopted country, he became a combat linguist. While other interpreters opted for safe assignments, Fahim chose one of the most dangerous: working with the Leathernecks in embattled Helmand Province, where his outgoing personality and deep cultural understanding made him a favorite of both Marines and local Afghans—and a pariah to the Taliban, who put a price on his head. Fahim Speaks is an inspiring story of perseverance and patriotism—and of the special love that one man developed for his adopted country.

Paperback, 218 pages
Published February 25th 2012 by Warriors Publishing Group
ISBN 0982167075 (ISBN13: 9780982167076)

About the Author

Fahim Fazli was born and raised in Kabul, Afghanistan. He fled the chaos of his homeland in 1983 and eventually came to the United States as a refugee. After moving to California, he worked in a variety of occupations before becoming a member of the Screen Actors Guild in 2003. He left his acting work from 2009 to 2010 to return to Afghanistan as a linguist with the United States Marine Corps. Now residing in California, he and his wife, Amy, have one daughter, Sophia.  

My Thoughts

Before 1980, most Americans knew or cared little about this impoverished, land-locked, Central Asian nation. After the Soviet Union invaded, though, Afghanistan became a flash point-- one that threatened to ignite a Cold War into the flames of a World War. 

The author was born in Kabul, Afghanistan, and later moved to the US as a refugee with his family.
Mountains of Kabul. Photo captured by Joe Burger from Siegburg, Germany
"The problem in Afghanistan is that everybody there holds a piece of a mirror, and they all look at it and claim that they see the entire truth."-- Mohsen Makhmalbaf, President of Asian Film Academy
This book briefly covers the life of Fahim Fazli in Afghanistan, but mostly covers his escape from Afghanistan as a refugee, his struggle to achieve success in Hollywood, and his desire to serve both his adopted country and his native land as a linguist with the Marines in Afghanistan.

Born in Afghanistan, Fahim found himself attempting to survive in a country where he risked relocation to Russia for "re-education". At 12 years of age, he was living in a city invaded by Russia. He, his father and his younger brother had not heard from his mother, older brother or sisters for four years, as they had already escaped to the U.S. Fahim's father Jamil made the decision to take his boys to Pakistan, with hopes of later making it to America.

It was a trek fraught with danger, and there were some near misses. Much of their escape was done on foot, guided by a "coyote", a person who guides people out of the country for a fee. In Peshawar, Fahim found himself faced with armed Taliban fighters patrolling the streets with AK-47s. At one point, an elder advised Fahim's father to get his boys off of the street before they wound up in the soldier's camp:
An unfortunate aspect of the fighter culture there involved young boys being exploited sexually. The practice is known as Bacha Bazi, literally "playing with boys". The practice of selling adolescent boys to wealthy or powerful men for entertainment and sex sadly thrives in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Abdul had told us earlier that Afghan culture precluded visits to military camps by women or prostitutes and so boys filled a sexual void of sorts for the fighters. (page 30)
Once in Peshawar, Fahim was eager to get to America.
We'd soon be in America, a legendary place in the minds of Afghans. Stories abounded about the magnificence and wealth of the United States. Some said it was a sinful place, where women shamelessly tempted men. Others claimed that Americans were allies of the Zionists and enemies of Islam. Still others said that the U.S. was a place of tolerance and generosity. (page 56)
After finally making it to the U.S., you get to see it through the eyes of this young Afghan refugee, and get a better idea of how Afghans view our country.
Americans tend to appreciate people as individuals. (page 126)
I marveled at how most American tribes got along and wondered if we could similarly bring the Afghans tribes together.

Anyone walking around Los Angeles can see people from a hundred different countries speaking a hundred different languages, and generally getting along. That's unimaginable in most other parts of the world. (page 157)
It shouldn't matter where anyone came from or what religion they followed, because we all descended from Adam and Eve. Didn't Christians, Jews and Muslims all believe in Abraham? I saw how tolerant people were in America, as compared to Afghanistan or Pakistan. If your religious beliefs changed or evolved here no one killed you. (page 66)
You feel for the woman who gave birth to Fahim. Born in a male-dominated country, married off at the age of 16, she is described as an intelligent and driven woman who wanted to be a doctor in a country where women are doomed to lives as housewives and maids and never anything more-- without choice. A woman with strong opinions and desires, she was always at odds with Fahim's father, and there was much yelling and fighting in the Fazli household when Fahim was growing up.

However the woman was no saint. Raised in a culture that believes that "Number One Son" is the favorite, and "Number Two Son" is the "Miserable Son", she could be brutal and cruel in her words to her second son Fahim at times. But there was a lot about her to respect, and she was very beloved by her son.

Fahim was raised with a heavy hand, as is common in Afghanistan. I remember author Andrea Busfield once describing in her book Born Under a Million Shadows (which takes place in Afghanistan) that " the streets the adults beat boys, the boys beat smaller boys, and everyone beats donkeys and dogs."

As an adult, Fahim has acted with some of the top actors in Hollywood, and has been a cultural adviser on a number of movies. At one point he was working on the set of Charlie Wilson's War, and was explaining to the extras on the set, who were playing refugees at the Parachinar refugee camp, how excited these refugees would have been to have Americans visiting the camp:
"You must understand how passionate the Afghan Mujahadeen were," I explained. "Imagine if some Communist infidels came to your land, to Morocco, and took away your religion. Picture them taking your sons away and sending them to Russia to be indoctrinate. Think of them dropping bombs on villages, and killing women and children. Consider them destroying your farms and killing your livestock. And know how frustrating it is to be unable to respond in kind, until finally some Americans show up to give you food, supplies, and weapons to take out the Soviet planes. Imagine how happy you'd be to meet the people who brought you the tools you need to reclaim your homeland. And how you have to show how happy, how ecstatic you are to actually meet the people who are giving you the gift of hope." (page 21)
 Fahim brings better understanding to the issue of the Taliban and what it has been like under their regime.
The Afghan refugee enclaves in Pakistan were increasingly dangerous due to a fanatical new group called the Taliban-- a name which translates to students. These Muslim fundamentalists wanted to rule Afghanistan using a corrupted and intolerant version of Islam. They sought to ban music and movies, and ruthlessly imposed their dogma. (page 77)
While the Communist police state had its own network of insidious informers, this new theocracy was even worse. If a man raped a woman, then she was to blame for tempting him, and the Taliban leaders sentenced her to death. The old Kabul sports stadium, once the site of spirited soccer competition, became a killing ground...

...In 1999, a woman named Zarmeena, a mother of seven, was executed at the stadium-- shot by a young Taliban soldier with a Kalashnikov rifle. Supposedly, she'd disrespected her husband. Thousands of people turned out for the spectacle, including women and children. Women wearing blue burquas dragged the body away as people chanted "Allah Akbar" or "God is Great".

This summary justice became routine. The new regime established laws calling for adulterers to be stoned to death and for thieves to suffer amputations. Life in the new Afghanistan wasn't much different from that of ancient Rome, where gladiators brutalized each other and hungry lions devoured hapless Christians-- largely to entertain the masses who filled the Coliseum to take the depraved spectacles. (page 106)
True to their fundamentalist Wahhabi precepts, Bin laden and Al Qaeda turned on the West after America helped them drive the Soviets from Afghanistan. Wahhabism is a puritanical form of Sunni Islam associated with Saudi Arabia that strongly influenced Bin Laden-- who directed its energy against the Soviets. After the Russians left Afghanistan, that energy was redirected against Western interests. American military presence in Saudia Arabia and elsewhere in the religion particularly angered the Wahhabis, who were utterly intolerant of those who didn't follow a rigid interpretation of the Quran. (page 109)
My final word: The writing is very simple and straightforward-- not flowery or overly expressive-- but the storytelling is engaging and enlightening, exposing a side of Hollywood with which I was unfamiliar... the "in"-side. Fahim's story offers more clarity on the people of Afghanistan, how the Taliban came to power, and what refugees would go through in order to get their families to safety. Fahim is a strong man of conviction, yet kind and affable, and his warmth comes through in the telling of his story, albeit the writing style can be a little stiff, possibly due to him being assisted by military writer Michael Moffett. However I found the book to be a worthwhile read.

Buy Now:

Barnes and Noble

My Rating:


I received a copy of this book to review through Netgalley, in exchange for my honest opinion. I was not financially compensated in any way, and the opinions expressed are my own and based on my observations while reading this novel.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Introducing...The Caged Graves by Dianne K. Salerni

Introducing books through the first chapter or so...

Even facing probably death, Private Silas Clayton couldn't stop thinking about that leather satchel.

Screams and gunfire echoed off the mountain walls in the distance. Light from burning homesteads flickered through the trees, and smoke hung over the valley, obscuring the stars. Silas knelt in the dirt, his hands bound behind his back and all his thoughts bent toward that bag, which fellow captive Sergeant Anders wore slung across his chest.

-- The Caged Graves by Dianne K. Salerni

Wednesday, July 3, 2013


The Today Show is hosting a great "Jill's Steals and Deals" today for bibliophiles. 12 Random House audio books are up to 75% off, available today for $13.50. Available while supplies last are:

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout
Victims by Jonathan Kellerman
Inheritance by Christopher Paolini
Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James
Fifty Shades Darker by E.L. James
In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson
The Racketeer by John Grisham
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Twilight by Stephanie Meyer
A Wanted Man by Lee Child
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Click here to take advantage of this offer, and use the discount code: todayaudiobooks

Monday, July 1, 2013

Mailbox Monday (07/01/13 edition)

 Image licensed from
Copyright stands

Mailbox Monday is hosted this month by Tasha at Book Obsessed. I've received a few new books recently:

League of Somebodies by Samuel Sattin

Lenard Sikophsky’s father has been feeding him plutonium since the age of six in the hopes of making him the world’s first bona fide superhero. First, he must pass the unusual tests of manhood locked in the centuries old tomb, The Manaton, a secret relic passed down for generations. Falling in love with the beautiful, compulsively suicidal Laura Moskowitz doesn’t make his life any easier. But with the guidance of the Sikophsky men, the antiquated rulebook, and of course a healthy amount of plutonium, Lenard accepts his fate as an exactor of justice...

Twenty years later, Lenard’s son Nemo is introduced to the same destiny as his father, only this time the violent entity called THEY are in dangerous pursuit. Lenard’s life and the legacy of his family are put to the test when he is forced to defend everything he loves.

Sea Creatures by Susanna Daniel

A mother must make the unthinkable choice between her husband and her son in this riveting domestic drama, the follow up to the author's "exquisite debut" (Publishers Weekly), Stiltsville

When Georgia returns to her hometown of Miami, her toddler son and husband in tow, she is hoping for a fresh start. They have left Illinois trailing scandal and disappointment in their wake: Graham's sleep disorder has cost him his tenure at Northwestern; Georgia's college advising business has gone belly up; and three-year old Frankie is no longer speaking. Miami feels emptier without Georgia's mother, who died five years earlier, but her father and stepmother offer a warm welcome-as well as a slip for the dilapidated houseboat Georgia and Graham have chosen to call home. And a position studying extreme weather patterns at a prestigious marine research facility offers Graham a professional second chance.

When Georgia takes a job as an errand runner for an artist who lives alone in the middle of Biscayne Bay, she's surprised to find her life changes dramatically. Time spent with the intense hermit at his isolated home might help Frankie gain the courage to speak, it seems. And it might help Georgia reconcile the woman she was with the woman she has become.

But when Graham leaves to work on a ship in Hurricane Alley and the truth behind Frankie's mutism is uncovered, the family's challenges return, more complicated than before. Late that summer, as a hurricane bears down on South Florida, Georgia must face the fact that her choices have put her only child in grave danger.

Sea Creatures is a mesmerizing exploration of the high stakes of marriage and parenthood, the story of a woman coming into her own as a mother, forced to choose between her marriage, her child, and the possibility of new love.

Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness


Historian Diana Bishop, descended from a line of powerful witches, and long-lived vampire Matthew Clairmont have broken the laws dividing creatures. When Diana discovered a significant alchemical manuscript in the Bodleian Library,she sparked a struggle in which she became bound to Matthew. Now the fragile coexistence of witches, daemons, vampires and humans is dangerously threatened.

Seeking safety, Diana and Matthew travel back in time to London, 1590. But they soon realise that the past may not provide a haven. Reclaiming his former identity as poet and spy for Queen Elizabeth, the vampire falls back in with a group of radicals known as the School of Night. Many are unruly daemons, the creative minds of the age, including playwright Christopher Marlowe and mathematician Thomas Harriot.

Together Matthew and Diana scour Tudor London for the elusive manuscript Ashmole 782, and search for the witch who will teach Diana how to control her remarkable powers...

Books received through Netgalley:

The People in the Trees by Hanya Yangihara

Readers of exciting, challenging and visionary literary fiction-including admirers of Norman Rush's Mating, Ann Patchett's State of Wonder, Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, and Peter Matthiessen's At Play in the Fields of the Lord-will be drawn to this astonishingly gripping and accomplished first novel. A decade in the writing, this is an anthropological adventure story that combines the visceral allure of a thriller with a profound and tragic vision of what happens when cultures collide. It is a book that instantly catapults Hanya Yanagihara into the company of young novelists who really, really matter.

In 1950, a young doctor called Norton Perina signs on with the anthropologist Paul Tallent for an expedition to the remote Micronesian island of Ivu'ivu in search of a rumored lost tribe. They succeed, finding not only that tribe but also a group of forest dwellers they dub "The Dreamers," who turn out to be fantastically long-lived but progressively more senile. Perina suspects the source of their longevity is a hard-to-find turtle; unable to resist the possibility of eternal life, he kills one and smuggles some meat back to the States. He scientifically proves his thesis, earning worldwide fame and the Nobel Prize, but he soon discovers that its miraculous property comes at a terrible price. As things quickly spiral out of his control, his own demons take hold, with devastating personal consequences.

The Returned (The Returned #1) by Jason Mott

"Jacob was time out of sync, time more perfect than it had been. He was life the way it was supposed to be all those years ago. That's what all the Returned were."

Harold and Lucille Hargrave's lives have been both joyful and sorrowful in the decades since their only son, Jacob, died tragically at his eighth birthday party in 1966. In their old age they've settled comfortably into life without him, their wounds tempered through the grace of time.

Until one day Jacob mysteriously appears on their doorstep--flesh and blood, their sweet, precocious child, still eight years old.

All over the world people's loved ones are returning from beyond. No one knows how or why this is happening, whether it's a miracle or a sign of the end. Not even Harold and Lucille can agree on whether the boy is real or a wondrous imitation, but one thing they know for sure: he's their son. As chaos erupts around the globe, the newly reunited Hargrave family finds itself at the center of a community on the brink of collapse, forced to navigate a mysterious new reality and a conflict that threatens to unravel the very meaning of what it is to be human.

With spare, elegant prose and searing emotional depth, award-winning poet Jason Mott explores timeless questions of faith and morality, love and responsibility. A spellbinding and stunning debut, The Returned is an unforgettable story that marks the arrival of an important new voice in contemporary fiction.

The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America by Thomas King

The Inconvenient Indian is at once a “history” and the complete subversion of a history—in short, a critical and personal meditation that the remarkable Thomas King has conducted over the past 50 years about what it means to be “Indian” in North America.

Rich with dark and light, pain and magic, this book distills the insights gleaned from that meditation, weaving the curiously circular tale of the relationship between non-Natives and Natives in the centuries since the two first encountered each other. In the process, King refashions old stories about historical events and figures, takes a sideways look at film and pop culture, relates his own complex experiences with activism, and articulates a deep and revolutionary understanding of the cumulative effects of ever-shifting laws and treaties on Native peoples and lands.

This is a book both timeless and timely, burnished with anger but tempered by wit, and ultimately a hard-won offering of hope -- a sometimes inconvenient, but nonetheless indispensable account for all of us, Indian and non-Indian alike, seeking to understand how we might tell a new story for the future.