REVIEW: Needles and Pearls by Gil McNeil

needles and pearlsFormat:  Paperback
Genre:  General Fiction / Chick Lit
ISBN:  978-1-4013-4129-9
Published:  2010

Rating:  3.5 out of 5 stars

Back of the Book Blurb:

Slip one …A year after her husband’s death, Jo Mackenzie is finally starting to get the hang of being a single parent.

Knit two together …The boys are thriving in their new seaside home, the wool shop is starting to do well and despite two weddings, an in-school knitting project and Trevor the Wonder Dog coming to stay, she’s just about keeping her head above water.

Cast off …But boys, babies and best friends certainly make life a lot more interesting. Can Jo cope when things get really complicated? Because if knitting truly does keep you sane when your life starts to unravel then it looks like Jo is going to need much bigger needles.

My Thoughts:

Funny, I didn’t expect to like this book more than The Beach Street Knitting Society and Yarn Club, but I did. Perhaps Gil McNeil hit her stride with this one. Perhaps it was due to several (somewhat unexpected) details that I really liked. Regardless, this one is better.

I won’t give away details, but I will say that I appreciated so much the fact that Jo Mackenzie is character who is growing. I do not enjoy characters who are all they are going to be from the very beginning, and do not learn from mistakes or gain at least some sort of wisdom from their existence. Jo (thankfully) is not that kind of character…at least not so far. She is not given to airs, she seems solid & grounded, and she doesn’t take the easy way out of problems (nor advise her friends to do so). That is refreshing, especially given that this is sort of a departure from what is societally popular right now. She also speaks her mind, and when the occasion warrants it, will put others in their place when they have crossed the line. She gets this trait honestly, and I truly love it, in large part because she also knows when to hold her tongue.

When I read Beach Street Knitting Society, I didn’t realize it was a series, but I’m a sucker for series when they have characters I enjoy. Despite the fluffiness of the books, I do like the characters, and frankly, they provide a nice break from the heavy reading I’m doing this year (and there is plenty of that). Of course, the cliffhanger ending (cue major emotional manipulation) makes it a bit difficult to stop at this point, knowing there are plot resolutions out there that I have not read. I’m glad I finally got around to it.

REVIEW: The Lost Art of Mixing by Erica Bauermeister

the lost art of mixingFormat:  Hardcover
Genre:  General Fiction / Chick Lit
ISBN:  0399162119
Published:  2013

Rating:  3.5 out of 5 stars

Back of the Book Blurb:

Lillian and her restaurant have a way of drawing people together. There’s Al, the accountant who finds meaning in numbers and ritual; Chloe, a budding chef who hasn’t learned to trust after heartbreak; Finnegan, quiet and steady as a tree, who can disappear into the background despite his massive height; Louise, Al’s wife, whose anger simmers just below the boiling point; and Isabelle, whose memories are slowly slipping from her grasp. And there’s Lillian herself, whose life has taken a turn she didn’t expect. . . .

Their lives collide and mix with those around them, sometimes joining in effortless connections, at other times sifting together and separating again, creating a family that is chosen, not given. A beautifully imagined novel about the ties that bind—and links that break—The Lost Art of Mixing is a captivating meditation on the power of love, food, and companionship.

My Thoughts:

This wasn’t as good as The School of Essential Ingredients, even though as a sequel (and having several of the same well-loved characters), there was potential. I was hoping that title, with it’s double entendre, was a preview of another book lush with great food made from excellent ingredients, with the personal stories weaving around (or growing out of) the food preparation. While there was some of that, it wasn’t the protagonist of the story as it was in her first book. That was disappointing, because the food was where the passion resonated from, and it was the catalyst that allowed the personal stories to blossom.

This is not to say that The Lost Art of Mixing was bad…it wasn’t. Some of the personal stories developed well, and were compelling. Some were less so. I particularly loathed Louise, and found her irredeemable even in the end. The thing is, had Bauermeister chosen to keep the food as a primary character in this book, I think the personal stories would have resonated with warmth across the board, rather than feel hit & miss as they did.

I’m glad I read it, because the characters that were so likable in The School of Essential Ingredients, and whose stories were not yet finished, made a repeat appearance. Those kinds of characters are hard to let go, and it was nice to see their stories find a conclusion…not a stopping point, but a point where you (the reader) know they are going to be ok.

Top Ten…ok, Five…Books on my Spring TBR Pile

Top Ten Tuesday is a book meme hosted over at The Broke and the Bookish.  I haven’t participated in a l-o-n-g time, but since it’s Spring Break this week, and I’m working on getting the baby on a new nap schedule, and my 8yo is happily eating breakfast and watching Curious George, I have time.

So, what are my reading priorities for Spring 2014?  Read on…

  1. Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal by T. David Gordon…I’m a pianist, and until recently, I was playing part time at our church.  Long story short, I am no longer doing that, due to some major differences of opinion that are not necessary to discuss here.  So I’m reading this book, which was recommended by a friend.  It should shed some light on some things I’ve felt for a long time.
  2. The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather…This past winter, I finally read (well, listened to) O, Pioneers! and My Antonia after many years on my TBR list.  I loved them.  L-o-v-e-d them…and loved O, Pioneers! especially.  Yes, I know My Antonia is Cather’s premier novel, and I really did enjoy it, but O, Pioneers! resonated deeply with me.  So I’m on to The Song of the Lark, to complete the Great Plains Trilogy, and then on to the rest of Cather’s work.  If you haven’t read her books, I encourage you to do so.  They are wonderful.
  3. Pain Redeemed: When Our Deepest Sorrows Meet God by Natasha Metzler…I started this early last year, and have yet to finish it.  I mean to do that this spring.  It is a deeply moving book of Metzler’s struggle with infertility.  I also read her blog (http://natashametzler.com/), and it is very encouraging.  She is a deep, thoughtful woman with a lot to say, and it’s high time I finished her book.
  4. Joy! A Study on Philippians for Women by Keri Folmar…I have a really hard time finding Bible studies that resonate with me, and truthfully, it’s not something I have ever been very good at.  However, I have lately felt like I need to do some sort of study, and I when I ran across this book, I connected with the idea of studying joy immediately.  So, this is another spring goal…to complete the study.  I’ve read Philippians – recently – so I really have no excuses.
  5. Spending the Holidays with People I Want to Punch in the Throat by Jen of People I Want to Punch in the Throat…This book is a collection of essays inspired by the blog of the same name, which is utterly hilarious.  If you’re not familiar with Jen, stop by her blog and read some of her entries.  She’s a bit of a potty mouth, so if you’re sensitive to that, consider yourself warned.  My personal favorite is her post on The Elf on the Shelf, which was gut-wrenchingly funny.  That was also the post that initially went viral, and launched her into the public consciousness.  She’s snarky & funny, and finds hilarity in every day life.  That is right up my alley.

That’s all I have on my short list for the moment.  There are many others, and you can peruse my entire list at Goodreads if you like.

Ahhh…Summer, the Time of Beach Reads!

Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature/weekly meme created at The Broke and the Bookish.

Everyone is welcome to join.

Just link back to The Broke and the Bookish on your own Top Ten Tuesday post AND add your name to the Linky widget so that everyone can check out your list! If you don’t have a blog, just post your answers as a comment. Have fun with it! It’s a fun way to get to know your fellow bloggers.

Today’s Top Ten Tuesday Topic:
Ahhh…Summer, the Time of Beach Reads!

1.  The Blue Bistro by Elin Hilderbrand.  Set on Nantucket Island, as many of her books are, this is a sweet story involving (primarily) the restaurant staff of this popular eatery.  Perfect for a quick summer read.

2.  Home to Italy by Peter Pezzelli.  This is the first book I read by Pezzelli, and I was not disappointed.  It starts in Rhode Island with the death of Anna, Peppi’s wife, but it quickly transitions to Italy as he returns to the land of his birth, reconnects with an old friend, and falls in love again.  It’s predictable, but after a but of a herky-jerky start, Pezzelli settles into a quick & easy style that is perfect for a day at the beach.

3.  Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons by Lorna Landvik.  As with most (or all?) of her books, this one is set in Minnesota, and centers around a group of women living on the same street who decide to start a book club.   It evolves to much more than that, of course, and though the arc of the story is fairly predictable, it is well written and has a lot meat on the bones.  Landvik has an writing style that makes for a fast, easy and enjoyable read, perfect for the beach.

5.  Bitsy’s Bait and BBQ by Pamela Morsi.  I was drawn to this book by the eye-catching title, and found it to be exactly the right thing for a summer read.  It is set in the South, a setting I love, and it has the predictable love story.  However, the writing is engaging and the characters are loveable, so it makes for a delightful read.

6.  Between, Georgia by Joshilyn Jackson.  This was Jackson’s debut novel, but the unusual title suggested right away that it would be a book worth reading.  I was not disappointed.  This is a Southern author whose works I love, and because characters reappear from time to time in different books, this first novel is the ideal place to start.  It is a quick and easy read, but truly enjoyable on every level.

7.  The Last Beach Bungalow by Jennie Nash.  A beach setting, which (obviously) is a great beach read.  I think I picked this up because of the cover art, and it was a lovely, if predictable, summer read.  Great for relaxing in the sun.

8.  The Wednesday Letters by Jason F. Wright.  I love epistolary novels, and this is no exception.  It is the story of a 39 year marriage, documented in a letter written each Wednesday by Jack to Laurel, and it plays out for their children, who are home to attend their funeral.  Though it sounds like a downer, it is not, and it is rich with all the elements of a classic love story.  Worth the time, and great for the beach despite the subject matter because it is quick and easy to read.

9.  Sweetgrass by Mary Alice Monroe.  I have read several of Monroe’s novels over the years, but I particularly loved this one.  I love the Southern setting of South Carolina, the typical “Southern” way (even in the way Monroe writes), and the cultural issues that she included.  It has an authentically Southern feel.  It also deals with some heavy subjects, but Monroe does not have a heavy hand, which makes it a lovely summer read.

10.  Hearts on a String by Kris Radish.  A story that illustrates a grandmother’s anecdote about the thread that connects all women, it is sweet and fun and easy to read.  Radish always has some fairly implausible element to her story lines, but in the end it doesn’t matter, because she touches you, entertains you, and lets you escape from regular life for a bit.  You will not be disappointed.

The Body Odd – You are what you read, study suggests

By Linda Carroll

Novels may have a lot more power than we think.

When you identify with a literary character, like Katniss Everdeen of the “Hunger Games” books, there’s a good chance you’ll become more like her, new study shows.

Researchers have found that when you lose yourself in a work of fiction, your behavior and thoughts can metamorphose to match those of your favorite character, according to the study published early online in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The researchers believe that fictional characters can change us for the good.So, if you bonded with Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” you might become more focused on ethical behavior, says the study’s lead author, Geoff Kaufman, a post-doctoral researcher at Tiltfactor Laboratories at Dartmouth College.

But the fiction-effect can have a dark side. “Think of ‘American Psycho,’” Kaufman says. “The character is very likable and charismatic. But he’s a serial killer. To the extent that you connect with him, you may try to understand or justify the actions he’s committing.”

Kaufman and his co-author Lisa Libby of Ohio State University suspected that when people read a fictional story they vicariously experience their favorite character’s emotions, thoughts and beliefs in a process that’s been dubbed “experience-taking.”

Kaufman and Libby found that experience-taking can lead to real changes in the lives of readers. What the researchers can’t say yet is whether those changes are brief or long-lasting.

Kaufman suspects novels can sometimes be life-changing. “If you’ve got a deep connection with the characters, it can have a lasting impact,” he says. “It can inspire you to re-read something. And then the impact can be strengthened over time.”

The researchers ran several experiments to look at how we react to fiction. In one, they found that people who strongly identified with a fictional character who overcame many obstacles in order to vote were significantly more likely to vote in a real election days later than volunteers who read a different story.

In another experiment, the researchers compared two groups of volunteers who read different versions of a story in which the protagonist was gay. In one version, readers didn’t learn till the end that the character was gay. In the other, they learned that detail right at the beginning.

Study volunteers who learned about the sexual orientation of the hero at the end of the story expressed more positive feelings towards gay people when they were questioned later on.

That’s because they got to know the character and connect with him before they had a chance to cloud their impression with gay stereotypes, Kaufman explains. Those who learned about the character’s sexual orientation early on didn’t relate to him as much because their stereotypes put distance between them and the character.

Kaufman believes that the fiction-effect only comes with written works. “When we watch a movie, by the very essence of it, we’re positioned as spectators,” he explains. “So it’s hard to imagine yourself as the character. I suspect that if you read the screenplay it would be more powerful as far as experience-taking goes.”

So, who is Kaufman’s favorite fictional personality? Anna Karenina, the protagonist in Leo Tolstoy’s novel of the same name.

“My identification with her might have inspired my research,” Kaufman muses. “It’s the connection with a female character and understanding her struggles and difficulty in adapting to life and society. Looking back, I think a lot of my favorites are strong, complex female characters struggling in society.”

What literary character do you most identify with, and why? Let us know in the comments here, or over on our Facebook page — we may use you in an upcoming msnbc.com post!

via The Body Odd – You are what you read, study suggests.

REVIEW: Body Surfing by Anita Shreve

Format:  Audio CD
Genre:  General Fiction
ISBN:  1594838747
Published:  April 2007
Setting:  New Hampshire

Rating:  4 of 5 stars

Back of the Book Blurb:

At the age of 29, Sydney has already been once divorced and once widowed. Trying to regain her footing, she has answered an ad to tutor the teenage daughter of a well-to-do couple as they spend a sultry summer in their oceanfront New Hampshire cottage. But when the Edwards’s two grown sons, Ben and Jeff, arrive at the beach house, Sydney finds herself caught up in a destructive web of old tensions and bitter divisions. As the brothers vie for her affections, the fragile existence Sydney has rebuilt is threatened. With the subtle wit, lyrical language, and brilliant insight into the human heart that has led her to be called “an author at one with her metier” (Miami Herald), Shreve weaves a story about marriage, family, and the supreme courage it takes to love.

My Thoughts:

I really enjoyed this book very much, despite the fact that I have a sort of love/hate relationship with Anita Shreve.  She is a really good writer, but her books so often have characters that are utterly infuriating, and it is really difficult to see beyond them to actually enjoy the story.  This book is no exception, but (thankfully) Sydney Sklar, the protagonist, is a sympathetic character from the start, easy to like and easy to root for.  Having a divorce behind her, and then having endured the unexpected death of her second husband, she is somewhat emotionally bruised when she comes to New Hampshire to tutor Julie.  I appreciated her from the beginning, especially as she not only embraced her role as Julie’s tutor, but connected with her  in a personal way as well.  She was observant of Julie’s struggles and her abilities, and once she recognized what shewasable to do – and do exceptionally well – she tapped into it immediately, providing her with the supplies she needed and encouraging her to pursue it passionately.

It was hard not to fall a little in love with Mr. Edwards as Sydney did.  He was a thoughtful, kind man who had a soft spot for his daughter, and for Sydney as well as their friendship blossomed over the summer.  It was equally hard not to loathe Mrs. Edwards, and to wonder what exactly drew Mr. Edwards to her, because it was certainly evident that he loved her.  She was unexplainably cold & distant to Sydney, from the very start, and as the summer progressed, with the dramas of relationships ending & beginning, her chilly attitude toward Sydney grew more pronounced.  She offered such a shallow, pitiful explanation of this at the end that it left me a bit miffed that I, the reader, was deprived of any substantive reason why she behaved as she did.

Without completely giving away the plot, I will say that it was a brilliant move on Shreve’s part to have a number of unexpected circumstances occur throughout the novel.  I loved that when I was expecting one thing, something just outside the box was happening instead.  I also loved that the history of both the family and the house was a substantial part of the story, because it beautifully enhanced the reading experience.

In the end, this was an satisfying, enjoyable and nice crafted novel.  I liked the balance of characters, and while I would have enjoyed having more character development in some cases, I thought the mix was exactly right for the book.

REVIEW: The Breakdown Lane by Jacqueline Mitchard

Format:  Audio CD
Genre:  General Fiction
ISBN:  0060759275
Published:  2005 (audio)
Setting:  Sheboygan WI

Rating:  4.5 of 5 stars

Back of the Book Blurb:

Where can a woman turn when her own life threatens to overwhelm her ability to keep her children safe? New York Times bestselling author Jacquelyn Mitchard takes the readers of her newest novel on a wry and moving journey of loss and healing. Giving advice is what Julieanne does for a living — every Sunday she doles it out in a column in her local Wisconsin paper. But when it comes to her personal life, Julie herself seems to have missed some clues. Having worked creatively to keep her twenty-year marriage to Leo fresh and exciting and to be a good mother, she is completely caught off guard when he tells her he needs to go on a “sabbatical” from their life together, leaving Julie and their three children behind. But it soon becomes clear that his leave of absence is meant to be permanent. Things take a turn for the worse when Julie is diagnosed with a serious illness and the children undertake a dangerous journey to find Leo — before it’s too late. As the known world sinks precariously from view, the clan must navigate their way through the shoals of love, guilt, and betrayal. Together, with the help of Leo’s parents and Julie’s best friend, they work their way back to solid ground and a new definition of family. No one illuminates modern love, marriage, and parenting better than Jacquelyn Mitchard. Written with her trademark poignancy, humor, and insight, The Breakdown Lane is her most moving, eloquent, and life-affirming work yet.

My Thoughts:

I wasn’t sure about this book when I started it.  I read another Mitchard book last year, and while I enjoyed it, I wasn’t overwhelmed with its greatness.  And truthfully, the first few chapters of this book were hard going because of my utter lack of connection with any of the characters.  Truth be told, I actually could not stand either Leo or Julieanne.  Both were so utterly shallow and superficial, and Leo especially had such a superiority complex toward Julieanne that it made me want to punch him between the eyes.  That much did not change throughout the book.

However, watching Julianne become more multi-demensional, and actually developing some depth as she traversed the difficulties of multiple slerosis, was a really satisfying reading experience.  I really began to appreciate her as she learned how to live with dignity in the wake of Leo’s duplicity, her disease, and looming financial disaster.  I liked that she stripped her life down to what was important, that she really leaned on those family & friends who proved their worth, and that she took her therapist’s advice to get out and get a life rather than living as a victim.  These are not small things, and to emerge from such a life implosion as a reasonably stable and immeasurably stronger person is good stuff – in fiction or in life.

What was perhaps the most enjoyable (for me) was having her reconnect with a childhood love, and having that reignite for her.  I liked that it happened slowly, and that she recognized that it was a good thing…that he was the real deal…and that she didn’t second guess herself into rejecting him.  Why?  Because sometimes that is exactly how life happens, and it is good to celebrate the good, solid, steady relationships…those that might not have fireworks, but prove their mettle just the same.

All in all, this book was a winner for me.  The storyline was good, the writing was good, and together they were something really special.