World War Z—Book Discussion Summary by Carole

“I think our group should read World War Z next,” my zombie-obsessed son suggested at our last book discussion. I admit that, although I indulge my children in any number of ways, I wasn’t too sure about this one. Did I want to read about zombies? Was it going to be a treatise in gore-dwelling prose that turned me off of my breakfast? Mind you, I’ve seen my share of slasher flicks and horror movies and lived to tell about them, but I prefer suspense to outright horror, especially in books, so I just wasn’t sure what we were in for.

World War Z is an oral history of the zombie wars that affected all of humanity in the recent past. Author Max Brooks, having already demonstrated his bona fides with the Zombie Survival Guide, compiled his history by interviewing survivors from all walks of life. And I do mean ALL. I quickly found myself engrossed (as opposed to grossed out) by the variety of perspectives Brooks provides through his accounts.

Consider the Japanese teenager who lived primarily in the virtual world until that world went silent, and he was forced to look around and notice that his mother hadn’t brought him any food lately. His mad, very-last-minute escape from the zombies propelled him into the real world in no uncertain terms.

Consider the beautiful young woman who lives in an institution because she is one of the feral children who were left to fend for themselves after their parents were killed. Her emotional development was stunted, so she is perpetually a four-year-old whose zombie imitations must be suppressed because the noise is so realistic that it scares everyone within earshot.

Consider the astronauts in the International Space Station observing the carnage on Earth and being powerless to do anything about it.

Consider the soldier who fought in every major campaign in the United States. His accounts showed the war’s trajectory, its impact, and its ultimate cost. How close the human race came to losing to the zombies because they were slow to recognize the true horror of what they faced and what needed to be done to defeat this new enemy became chillingly clear through his words.

Consider reading the book to get the many other perspectives Brooks provides the reader.


As we gathered for our discussion, everyone said that they “enjoyed” the book (Is enjoy the right word here—can you really enjoy a book about such devastation?). I had a similar conversation with my son—“Can you have a ‘lively’ conversation about the undead?” I asked. He considered it carefully and conceded that you can in fact.

My son said he chose the book to discuss because he thought it was thought provoking. By providing so many different perspectives, Brooks allowed readers to see themselves in the story or who they thought they would most be like under those circumstances.

My daughter said that she really wasn’t looking forward to reading it, but she really got into it as she went along. She liked the story of the woman whose helicopter crashes—she is in a heavily infested area, injured, and alone. She makes radio contact with a woman who talks her through to safety—who was that woman? We all found that story particularly fascinating.

My husband believes that the slow reaction to the real dangers they faced were very realistic, but that once the war was over and the enemy defeated, nations would revert to their squabbles with one another.

Chris’s fiancĂ© thinks that, following such a devastating world-wide event, the survivors would maintain the bond they shared in defeating such an enemy for at least a generation or two.

Chris liked Brooks’ approach of presenting this as an oral history to help people remember what happened. It added to the author’s efforts to make it all seem so real.

I remember talking to Paul Bibeau at the Virginia Festival of the Book about his obsession with Dracula. I explained that my son’s obsession was with zombies. I asked Paul when he decided his obsession was a good thing. He said when he realized that he could make a buck at it. Then he said, “If your son is into zombies, he must have read Max Brooks.” I assured him that he had. He replied, “I hate that guy—he’s SO good at what he does!”

I concur—taking a fictional event, such as a world-wide infestation of zombies that lead to a fight for the very survival of the human race and presenting it as if it really did happen takes talent. I look forward to seeing where Max Brooks takes us next.

We will be suspending our group discussions until after Chris and David tie the knot in June. We’re kicking around the idea of revisiting a classic, such as Moby Dick or Robinson Crusoe, but we haven’t decided yet.


The Monsters of Templeton — Review by Chris

The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff is a detective novel, a pastoral, a history book and a memoir all in one. Winnie Sunshine Upton, the adult daughter of a single mother and former hippie, comes home to Templeton in shame. After an affair with her married professor on the Alaskan tundra, she finds herself pregnant and nearly kills his wife — then winds up on the doorstep of her childhood home.

She is sure she will be tossed from the doctoral program (which she couldn't complete from jail, anyway, considering what she did to the professor's wife) and her best friend Clarissa is deathly ill. Winnie had vowed to shake the dust of her provincial town off her boots and move on to a life of, well, anything but Templeton. In light of this, she believes life can't get worse.

Only it does. She returns the day the lake monster, a thing of legends, is real, evident by its body found floating in Lake Glimmerglass. And her mother tells her that the story of her paternity has been a lie: she is not the offspring of a free-love experiment in San Francisco, but the child of a man of the town. Who? Well, that's up to Winnie to find out. Her only clue: he is related to the town founder, as she is.

While the first voice we hear is Winnie's, many other voices weave this tale: the Running Buds, a group of men in the town who run together; the different historical residents of Templeton Winnie studies; and the lake monster.

The characters were very real and very interesting. It takes all types to make a town, and Groff allowed them to speak for themselves. I liked hearing about this small town from its beginning, and it's easier to understand a town when you know the people who created it.

I found the tale very busy at first, and I had a hard time following it. Voices switched in what I thought were nonsensical ways. Why the Buds now? Why Prettybones then? What was I supposed to glean from this part of the tale? Was it a clue? I didn't know enough about the tale to pick up yet on clues, so at first I felt out of the loop, stupid.

Maybe that's why I had a hard time sympathizing with Winnie in the beginning: I didn't understand her. Only when I saw her through the eyes of others did I start to appreciate her character and personality. Frankly, the impetus for this change was Clarissa, her stalwart and closest friend, and the Running Buds. If they liked Winnie, so did I. Then again, Winnie wasn't so keen on herself at first, and it's hard to like someone who doesn't like herself.

As the story developed, so did my affection for the tale. It was more engrossing as more of the elements were introduced, as the relationships were developed, as the town became more of a character. It had its own rhythm, and it started to make sense. Groff includes photos at the beginning of the chapters and a map of Templeton, which made it very real for me. I especially liked the illustration of Glimmey. In fact, I'd say Glimmey is my favorite character, followed closely by Clarissa. After a while, I felt like a townie myself.

By the time I was halfway through the book, I was compelled to finish it quickly (not so much the "don't go to sleep until it's finished" quickly, but more "go to the gym to read rather than run" and "just a few more pages before turning off the light").

I found a few elements of the story, however, a little far-fetched. If my mother told me my gestation took 10.5 months, I would know something was up, especially if my relationship had grown as Winnie and Vi's had. I also found the transformation of one of the men of town a little hard to believe because it was illogical in the time span in which it was supposed to occur.

Then again, I wasn't sure exactly how many days or weeks passed during the telling of the tale. Groff was very specific in her passage of time, but Winnie's condition distracted me from that specific chronology. Finally, what happened to Winnie at the end was nearly telegraphed; there was no way Groff would left anything else happen to her heroine. Knowing that made Winnie's situation almost a distraction, and I took little pleasure in that portion of the storyline.

Frankly, I loved the ending. I savored the last few chapters because it all made sense. I also liked the characters so much that I enjoyed spending time with them. It took me a while to get there, but when I did, I was very happy to be there.

In all, I would recommend it. It's a good read and an interesting story. It shows a definite love for a small town and the dichotomy of loving it enough to protect and support it and, at the exact same time, wanting it to be in the rear view mirror.


Inheritance—Review by Carole

When you get to the age when you can view your parents as real people instead of larger-than-life figures, then you are officially an adult. At least that’s the way I look at it. Some people never get to that stage—they perennially see their parents from a child’s viewpoint. I think it does your parents great honor if you see them as real people and love them for who they are.

In Inheritance, Natalie Danford explores the adult child-parent relationship in her debut novel. Olivia is the grown—and only—daughter of Luigi Bonocchio.

In English, Bonocchio means "good eyes"—I'm always fascinated by the name authors choose for their characters. I wondered as I read this whether Danford named him Luigi Good Eyes because he "sees more" than perhaps the other characters. Or did she just like the name? Or does my mind just work in weird ways as my mother has suggested on more than one occasion? But I digress.

Olivia discovers a deed to a house in Italy among his possessions after his death. Because her father spoke so little of his family and upbringing there, Olivia is intrigued enough to visit the village of Urbino to learn more. She is guided by a vague notion that she will learn what a wonderful thing having extended family around you is like.

What she actually learns changes the way she views her father. Olivia is essentially raised by her father, but she has been living her own life for many years. She takes care of her father at the end of his life. She grieves for his loss, but she doesn’t want to remember him the way he was at the end. But she feels betrayed by her father when she learns the story of his past.

While I was sympathetic to her on some levels, I have to say that I was often angry with Olivia. She is quick to judge her father without knowing the whole story. Even before his death, Olivia seems to have moved on from her life with her father instead of making sure he had a part in it. And she seems at times to be more ready to believe the word of people she’s only just met than to believe what she knows in her heart to be true of her father.

Now, if we only learned the story from Olivia’s point of view, we would be missing a great deal. Danford doesn’t allow that to happen. She offers us alternating narratives from Olivia’s and Luigi’s perspective. Put together, they offer a complete story of one man’s struggle to reconcile his past with life in a new country and his daughter’s quest to understand how her father could have made the decisions he did and lived with the consequences.

Inheritance deals with betrayal and perceptions—Danford writes about these deeply emotional issues with compassion. Her novel is tightly written (a trait I admire and aspire to); her repeated imagery of sheds, clay, and locks really resonated with me.

We are discussing this in my sisters-in-law's book club next week, but I wanted to share my thoughts with you now. It was my pick, so I’ll update you with what everyone thinks of the book after we meet.

If you want to read more, check out this Square Table interview of Natalie Danford.


Update: I e-mailed Natalie Danford to let her know that we reviewed her book. She responded:

"Thank you so much, both for reading the book in your book club and for reviewing it. A lot of people get angry with Olivia when they read the book! I went to talk to a college class about the book this week, and the professor referred to Olivia as "morally anxious," a phrase I really like."

I think the phrase "morally anxious" is an apt one to describe Olivia. It's nice to know that the book is being discussed in many different circles.


Bound by String, Books, and Memories

Several years ago, my daughter and I went on an overnight school retreat. My daughter was seven, and I brought a big piece of string to teach her the “string game.” Those of you who are “of an age” should remember it—you wrap the string a certain way around your hands and then you hold it out to your partner who then grabs it a certain way and takes it off your hands and onto hers. Each configuration of the string requires a particular move on your partners’ part to successfully transfer the string. I had played this for “hours and hours” as a kid with my best friend, and I wanted to teach my daughter how to play. (Of course, in my day, it was just a big piece of actual string—nowadays, it’s a kit that you can buy—has our generation truly lost its collective mind—don’t get me started!)

Anyway, I couldn’t remember how to get it started, and several moms joined in offering advice. These mothers had grown up in Korea, Jamaica, and around the United States. We had ALL played the string game—who knew it was universal? We all proceeded to play the string game the rest of the weekend with our daughters while chatting away about many things.

I find it equally fascinating to learn when we share books in common. Chris grew up on the West Coast, and I grew up here in the East, yet we read many of the same books when we were young teenagers. Many, we agree, that we were too young to read—they left indelible images, many of which we wish weren't there, but that’s a post for another day.

Think of the “pool” books—Sybil, The Exorcist, and The Reincarnation of Peter Proud. They were the books that everyone, or so it seemed, was reading between slathering on the baby oil and checking out the lifeguards. The books then were feverishly passed to friends—my copy of Peter Proud came back to me three times thicker with wavy pages because one friend actually dropped it in the pool while chatting it up with one of the more noticeable lifeguards. (I don’t know how to “shrink” a book back down to size when it has been waterlogged—does anyone know a way?)

Before we discovered these disturbing books, however, we had everything from Dr. Seuss to Nancy Drew. My daughter just finished a stint as a Who in Seussical the Musical--I delighted to see so many of my favorite Seuss stories set to music. My yellow-covered Nancy Drews hold a place of honor next to my brother's Hardy Boys, which I also read, but another girlfriend and I have special places in our hearts for Trixie Belden.

My sisters-in-law and I also often talk about books from our younger days—I didn’t know these ladies then, but we shared many books in common. Phyllis A. Whitney, Barbara Michaels/Elizabeth Peters, and Victoria Holt were favorite authors. Michaels’ Ammie, Come Home remains a sentimental favorite for many of us.

Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds—some of us loved it while others hated it. Danielle Steele’s The Promise made the rounds. Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War and War and Remembrance were in everyone’s hands a second time when the miniseries was developed.

Agatha Christie’s mysteries, Georgette Heyer’s romances, and Erma Bombeck’s humorous commentaries all add to that collective reading experience. More recently, the Harry Potter books and The DaVinci Code—these in particular seem to generate either a strong “love it” or “hate it” response. But it seems to me that this collective experience happens less often now than it did then. Why is that?

I know that I enjoy “discovering” a book that only I seem to have found, but there is something comforting to me in sharing a book. Maybe that is part of the reason that book clubs are so popular today, particularly among women. We are seeking that shared collective again. Maybe we all want to remember what it’s like to be thirteen again reading a book we know our mothers wouldn’t approve, passing it along to a friend, snickering over the good parts, and recounting the scary moments. These delicious memories of string games and books bind us to one another, even those we don’t know yet.

Did reading this bring any other books to mind? Ooh, I just thought of another one—Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Burns! Please help me remember others.


A Confederacy of Dunces - Review by Carole

I read A Confederacy of Dunces while I was in New Orleans for a conference. I love when I get a chance to read a book in the city in which the story is set. I found the book to be an interesting experience--I found it both repulsive and compelling. I was fascinated to see how Ignatius J. Reilly was going to crash and burn and rise again from each situation. Definitely a dark comedy.

I found the introduction of the book by Walker Percy perhaps the most compelling element of all. The author--John Kennedy Toole--ended his life by suicide, and his mother persevered and was able to get the book published (it won a Pulitzer). How incredibly sad and what a tribute to a son from his grieving mother.

The book opens with a physical description of Ignatius J. Reilly:

A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once. Full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black moustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs. In the shadow under the green visor of the cap Ignatius J. Reilly’s supercilious blue and yellow eyes looked down upon the other people…Possession of anything new or expensive only reflected a person’s lack of theology and geometry; it could even cast doubts upon one’s soul.

I can't get the image of Reilly out of my mind, and I know that if I had ever seen a hot dog vendor attired as he was, in the French Quarter or anywhere, I would have crossed the street and scurried on by. The idea that ANYONE would try to buy a hot dog from him is amazing to me. I guess I would have been in the company of the horrified ladies who were staging their annual art show when he happened by.

Reilly often goes on at length about the delicate condition of his digestive system, no doubt aggravated by his unrelenting gluttony. If I had ever been subjected to listening to his discussions of his "valve" or his one disastrous attempt to leave New Orleans, I think I may have been ill.

I was intrigued by Reilly's fascination with Boethius' The Consolation of Philosophy and how he often reflected on whether a person lacked theology and geometry. I picked up a copy of Boethius' work last summer and am now reading it. I'm enjoying the personification of Philosophy as a character, particularly as she reflects on how Fortune is always true to herself, but that people are only devotees of Fortune when she smiles on them. When she bestows ill favor on someone, she is just as true to herself, but people always feel betrayed.

I'm not sure if that is why Reilly values this book so much--he doesn't seem to be able to fathom why Fortune doesn't favor him more. His inability to see how his own actions contribute to the situations in which he finds himself is astounding and certainly seems to act as a sort of survival mechanism for him.

I admired Toole's ability to spin these different story circles at once--an exotic dancer and her parrot, mysterious "packets" for orphans, one floorsweeper’s determination to stick it to the lady who is underpaying him, Reilly’s mother's growing frustration with her son, a policeman desperate to save his career, and a college "girlfriend" who is determined to save Reilly from himself--until they collide in an organized chaos that has a "theology and geometry" of its own.

I wouldn't say that I loved the book, but it was like watching the proverbial train wreck--I couldn't look away.


The Last Cato--Revisited by Carole

I just finished The Last Cato and posted my comment to Chris' earlier review.

The website Chris mentions is well done with lots of additional information on Dante, the Staurofilakes, and Cato. The concept of the story is brilliant, but I had issues with the writing. Below is the comment I posted to Chris' review:

Okay, many months later, I've finally had a chance to read The Last Cato. I loved the concept of the story, very clever, but I almost didn't finish this book. The writing just wasn't equal to the premise. While reading it, I re-read Chris' review, and it helped a bit to remember that this was a translation, but that only goes so far.

Numerous times throughout the book I felt that the word choices were just inappropriate--it was a huge distraction.

One thing that I initially liked about the book was that a nun was the main character, but then I started to get that sinking feeling that the book was going to annoy me--many times the only reason an author has a nun or a priest as a character is to have them break their vows or fall from grace. I always find that cheap and I'm ultimately disappointed.

Once the rhythm of the book was established--the characters move through the different challenges to pass the tests which will ultimately cleanse them of the seven deadly sins leading them to paradise on earth--I wanted it to hurry up already. By challenge 4 or 5, I wanted to speed through it to get to the end.

An interesting story that I wanted to be better than it was. I wish I could read it in its original Spanish to assess the true quality of the writing. That brings to mind another topic worthy of discussion--is it poor writing or poor translation? How many works have suffered because the translator lacked the skills needed to convey more than just the author's words?


Analyzing Google Analytics

I know just enough about Google Analytics to be dangerous. I’m at the addicted stage where I check in to find out how many hits we’ve had and end up clicking endlessly, thinking to myself, “I wonder what this button does!”

I stumbled on a really great one recently: Visitor Loyalty. Considering that our blog is relatively new, I expected that the majority of our readers would be one-time visitors. We were absolutely thrilled to find out that a significant number of our visitors keep coming back. Below is a snapshot of our visitor loyalty chart since we’ve been tracking in Google Analytics (since mid-December 2007). Please note that more than 500 visitors have returned 50 times or more!

First of all, let us say—Thank You! We appreciate your loyalty more than you know. Second of all, we can’t help but be curious—we just have to ask—Who are You?

We know a few things about our readers—we have had visitors from every state in the country, except for Wyoming, New Mexico, and Alaska (if you know anyone in these states, encourage them to visit—we would love to see the entire map of the United States colored in). We have also had visitors from 42 other countries, which we think is fascinating!

We would love to hear from you. Please feel free to comment here as to what keeps you coming back to our blog, and we would love to get your comments on any of our posts.


Water for Elephants — Review by Chris

When Tower Records (and books!) was closing and the books were selling for next to nothing, I took the opportunity to purchase a couple of books that had sounded intriguing. Water for Elephants was one of them. I put it on my nightstand with every intention of reading it soon. Well, 16 months later, I decided it was about time.

All I can ask myself is, Why did I wait that long?

It was a fabulous, compelling book I am glad to recommend.

The novel starts out with a scene that grabbed me from the first. A personal disaster is swept aside in a second due to a bigger and badder disaster. One would think threat to life and limb would trump pretty much anything. Well, read the Prologue to find out just how little personal disaster matters in the face of true terror.

And it goes on from there.

Water for Elephants is a rich, haunting story that pulls no punches. Author Sara Gruen deftly weaves an intricate tapestry of heart-stopping action, grief beyond comprehension, love that challenges society, innocence beyond modern understanding, abysmal despair, confusion and disappointment — all wrapped in a story that refuses to unhand the reader under any circumstance.

While the action is captivating and compelling, the characters are what make this such a memorable book. The central character is Jacob, whom we meet at both the beginning and the end of his life. Jacob the elder and Jacob the younger start out as separate characters who slowly merged into a single person.

As a youth who suffers a heartbreaking loss, Jacob the younger faces life in America during the Depression, where a Cornell education is worth only as much as the food it pays for. Almost immediately, however, readers meet Jacob the elder, an ancient man who can more easily recall his life in a third-rate circus than the faces of his extended family members. Both Jacobs are pretty much living in the same moment — especially when the circus sets up next door.

Jacob's tales weave together well. As Jacob's life progresses in the assisted living center, so does the story of his youth. His life and memory unfold deliberately and richly, and readers learn what took Jacob to (and back to) that heart-stopping scene. At the same time, readers begin to recognize Jacob as he sees himself — and the man we see is not the liver-spotted, slow, cranky man who does not recognize himself in the mirrors he refuses to use.

I truly enjoyed Gruen's circus characters: the train (which is a character itself), the castes and camaraderie, their treachery and kindnesses, their unfolding relationships. I thrilled at the exciting scenes and forced myself to continue reading when animals appeared to be in pain or face frightening situations. I was moved by the desperation and friendships that created situations in which people chose actions they would not otherwise consider. I also discovered how little people have changed in three-quarters of a century.

Gruen did not sentimentalize animals, but the affection and respect she showed them on the page — and how the characters treated them in kind — is central to the novel. I have to admit, I feared I might not be able to read the book because I am extremely sensitive about animals. I could read it, but it certainly was no walk in the park (or circus).

The scenes in the assisted living center were very stirring. Those whose bodies turn them into witnesses, rather than actors, provide intimate details and information about the situations and the people around them. I was moved by the sadness and lack of dignity in the life of an eldery man whose soul is literally saved by an unexpected kindness. I was very touched by those who, despite their own situation, could (and did) summon the patience to see beyond the anger and hostility to the person beneath it all.

I am glad I read Water for Elephants and I can see why so many people have read it. I hope you are one of them; if not, I hope you will be soon.


The City of Dreaming Books — Review by Chris

Book lovers can delight in a novel that lets them enjoy everything about the world of writing, from the spark of an idea to the crumbling pages of an ancient tome. The City of Dreaming Books is all that, and more.

The book begins with a challenge from the narrator: if you're up for a thrill ride, come along. Otherwise, you cowards, put down this book and go get something tame and manageable. Who can resist such a challenge? Certainly not me.

And so I ventured forth into Walter Moers' imagination. Boy, am I glad I did! For anyone who loves books, it is a fabulous read, full of book-love, adventure, surprises, wonderful characters and page after page of books.

I will add one caveat: it feels like a long read. So much happens that one feels as though it never will end. However, that is not a bad thing. We learn a lot, and the narrator offers enough asides to keep the reader in the know about this strange new world. It is rip-roaring fun, with enough adventure and enough occasional catch-your-breath moments that the pace is manageable.

Oh, and it's funny. Very funny.

Moers wrote the book in German (though he notes it was translated from the original Zamonian by him), so it feels a little heavier than a book originally written in English — but by no means is it cumbersome and dense. It's weighty, but one cannot experience Bookholm and all it offers any other way.

Moers does not introduce any frivolous material. Everything he puts in the book is important, from Optimus' reading of The Catacombs of Bookholm to a description of the streets and buildings of the city.

Optimus Yarnspinner, the authorial godson of Dancelot Wordwright (author of The Joys of Gardening), is at the bedside of the dying writer when Dancelot reveals a secret. No, not that he still sees himself as a cupboard full of dirty spectacles, but of the existence of the perfect manuscript. Upon reading it himself years ago, Dancelot told this anonymous author to go straight to Bookholm, the book and publishing capital of Zamonia, and have it published right away. Unfortunately, he never heard from the author again.

Dancelot tells Optimus to read it, but to not despair — use the manuscript as a launching point for his own life and literary ambitions. Optimus is a dutiful godson, and he does just that. And his life is never the same. After reading the manuscript, he packs a rucksack (thankfully after putting down his jelly sandwich) and heads straight to Bookholm to find this talented writer.

Bookholm is a wonderful, chaotic, frenetic, lovely place devoted to all things bookish, especially for Optimus, a writer who has yet to publish anything. It's like Manhattan, only Zamonian, and a joy to visit with Optimus.

Along the way, Optimus encounters a few booksellers to whom he shows the manuscript. They order him home directly (though the Ugglian can't help but prophecy about his fate). An agent directs him to the most respected antiquarian bookseller in the city. With calling card in hand, Optimus approaches Pfistomel Smyke's bookshop in the heart of the city.

The story doesn't end there. If anything, it accelerates, becoming even more interesting and entertaining (which is hard to believe, considering the book's strong beginning).

One of the best things Optimus does for his readers is discuss The Catacombs of Bookholm, a memoir by the most famous of Bookhunters, Colophomius Regenschein. It's fascinating, and you'll be glad you paid attention.

In the end, as The City of Dreaming Books comes to a close and you read every single page to the end (which you must, every single page, trust me!), you'll quietly savor the book for a moment before packing your rucksack like Optimus himself did and setting out for Bookholm. (Hopefully someone will be on hand to stop you before you venture too far afield.) Having been thwarted in that endeavor, you'll instead start seeking the Orm yourself and create something for the Fearsome Booklings.

Now, log off your computer this very moment and go get The City of Dreaming Books. You can thank me later.


Julia's Chocolates—Review by Carole

Julia’s Chocolates by Cathy Lamb has a quirky cast of characters whose interactions, comments, and situations made me alternately laugh out loud and shake my head. Lamb combines truly tragic circumstances with strong characters to shows us how people can find the best in themselves and in each other.

And when I say tragic, I’m talking about physically abusive relationships involving women and children, drug and alcohol addiction, shamefully neglectful parents, and cruelty to animals. When you read the name and see the cover, you think that maybe you are in for a light romp of a read, but Lamb deals with some heavy stuff.

Granted, her approach may be too light handed for those who really like to dwell in dark places, but as my sister-in-law pointed out, “In books, I like the bad guys to be really bad, and I like my good guys to be really good.” Lamb achieves this in Julia’s Chocolates. There is no doubt who the bad folks are, and you know who you are rooting for from the very beginning.

Julia flees to her Aunt Lydia’s house after running out on her abusive fiancĂ©. She is broken in many senses of the word. Her aunt represents all that she knows of stability in a life that has seen more neglect than affection.

Aunt Lydia is a force of nature who pushes and pulls those around her to get them to do what she thinks is best for them and all others concerned. She holds weekly get togethers for a group of women friends who are all troubled in one way or another—When Julia joins the group for the first time, her face still sports the technicolor bruise her fiance gave her just before the wedding. She joins the groups for Breast Power Psychic Night.

When I got to this part of the book, I thought, “Oh, boy, here we go. Another book from an ardent feminist’s point of view, making characters act in ways that real women never would.” (Annie G Freeman’s Fabulous Traveling Funeral is a classic example of the worst of this genre.) In this case, though, the characters do not want to be in these situations—they simply fall under Aunt Lydia’s power of personality and do what she tells them to for their own good. The results are often hilarious.

To give you some insight into Aunt Lydia, I pulled this from the book:

"'Breasts have a lot to say, Julia, you simply have to listen to them,' says Aunt Lydia, lover of giant ceramic pigs, poker, chickens, and pink houses with black doors to ward off evil spirits and seedy men."

During Getting to Know Your Vagina Night, Aunt Lydia says to one of the women, “Katie, let’s start with you.” To which Katie replies, “Oh, please God, no!” I think I would respond in much the same way. In conjunction with the evening’s theme, Aunt Lydia serves tacos and strawberry daiquiris, and I may never look at either of these things the same again. Suffice it so say, that, while a funny element in the book, I was glad my sister-in-law didn’t serve these when she hosted book club!

For those looking for gritty realism, you might find some of what you are looking for here, but I think you would ultimately be disappointed. Instead, you’ll find a world where the good people in a town band together against the people who would do harm to those who cannot protect themselves. It’s the way we want to believe our communities would pitch in to help neighbors in true need. I know that I like a little dose of this message now and again.

So, if you do too, indulge in some chocolate while you read this satisfying novel and let me know what you think.