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Leigh Anne's Picks

Book Cover for Giving--the Sacred Art: Creating a Lifestyle of Generosity Wright, Lauren Tyler
Giving--the Sacred Art: Creating a Lifestyle of Generosity

Nonfiction
As the world grows increasingly more complex and, well, crazy, people with good intentions sometimes throw up their hands and say, "I want to make a difference, but where and how do I start? And will anything I do even make a dent in all the need and craziness?" Wright is here to gently assure you that yes, you can make a difference, and yes, the little things do count. The tone is gently encouraging, the chapters are short (to accommodate our hectic lifestyles, perhaps?), and the content includes lots of practical tips on giving, including strategies for gradually increasing the amount of time, goods, and money you can donate. An overview of the giving traditions, customs and regulations in the major monotheistic religions is helpful, too, as Wright grounds giving within the context of a faith-filled lifestyle. Be warned, however: this is not a slap-dash, "Do these ten things and be a more generous person" handbook. Wright gently, but firmly, calls for a complete lifestyle makeover, one in which we still take care of ourselves, but also think critically about just how much we need, and what we can afford to give to those around us. Recommended for people who want to save the world without losing themselves, or who just want to learn more about the contemporary Christian perspective on giving.
Recommended October 2008

 
Book Cover for Seeking Enlightenment, Hat by Hat Barr, Nevada
Seeking Enlightenment, Hat by Hat

Nonfiction
Barr, best known for her Anna Pigeon mystery series, speaks candidly of her journey from agnosticism to faith in a series of short, simple essays on topics such as forgiveness, sin, prayer, and belief. Barr writes like a subtler, dry-witted Anne Lamott: you can just imagine the sound of her voice, wryly commenting from the sidelines while the world hustles and bustles all around her, calmly stating the principles of what makes sense to her, and the roads she traveled to get there. The fact that those roads were often not pretty underlies Barr's credibility, and saves her spiritual journey from the pitfall of excessive sweetness and light. Described by her pastor as "still a heathen, but no longer godless," Barr is the perfect companion for an early-morning cup of coffee and a quiet hour in which to think about one's own relationship to the divine.
Recommended June 2008

 
Book Cover for The Knitting Sutra:  Craft As A Spiritual Practice Lydon, Susan Gordon
The Knitting Sutra: Craft As A Spiritual Practice

Nonfiction
Today's DIY movement is more than just a passing fad. In fact, knitting, crochet, embroidery, and other handicrafts have roots in a variety of cultures, and have been revered as a form of spiritual expression throughout history. This short, gentle exploration of the healing power of handicrafts revolves around the author's obsession with knitting, what it has taught her, how it has helped her mend (literally and figuratively), and the spiritual experiences to which it has led her. A swift, yet powerful read that will embrace you like a homemade sweater and, perhaps, inspire you to bring your own needles and thread out of hiding.
Recommended March 2008

 
Book Cover for Passion Morgan, Jude
Passion

Fiction
There's something about Mary...Shelley, that is. See also Caroline Lamb, Augusta Byron, and Fanny Brawne, the women behind the men of Romantic poetry. Sisters, wives, lovers, and intellectual sparring partners, these women's experiences are dramatized in Morgan's tony, yet not stuffy, novel of 19th-century England. Stifled by their times and circumscribed by their passions, these women of wit and promise appear both strong and poignant when viewed through Morgan's lens. While the narrative style wobbles in places, the characters' voices are strong and distinct, with Caroline Lamb's calm, yet chilling, descriptions of her Byronic obsession taking center stage. Readers besotted with 19th-century poetry should definitely take a look; lovers of historical fiction in general will want to try it on for size, and those who like reading about women's issues and problems will find fertile ground here for discussion and debate.
Recommended January 2008

 
Book Cover for If the Buddha Came to Dinner Schatz, Hale Sofia
If the Buddha Came to Dinner

Nonfiction
If Jesus, the Goddess, Buddha, or Mohammed were coming to your house for dinner, you wouldn't give them garbage. So why don't we treat our own bodies with respect? This provocative logic is the cornerstone of Schatz's guide to nutrition and wellness. In a departure from conventional advice, Schatz suggests that a good relationship with food should begin with a close examination of one's emotional and spiritual nourishment patterns. Probing questions, asked with compassion and care, are peppered throughout the text, giving readers open to suggestion another way to look at their concerns about true nourishment and optimal wellness. Although no consumer health guide should substitute for the advice of one's own physician, Schatz's book is intriguing reading for people searching for a different way to look at the food they eat, and open to spiritual advice about changing their eating habits. Recommended for consumers and medical professionals who have found works by Andrew Weil and Deepak Chopra helpful in their healthcare choices or practice.
Recommended October 2007

 
Book Cover for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Rowling, J. K.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Fiction
Is there room in the court of public opinion for one more review of the year's most frequently hyped book? I believe there is, if only for the sake of those who would avoid this series for fear of "unsavory elements." Skeptical readers who are willing to take a leap of faith, and begin with the first volume, will find themselves well-rewarded by the time they reach the final, action-packed chapters of this brilliant conclusion, in which Rowling tips her hand to reveal a larger pattern that's clearly influenced by C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia. After many dreadful revelations and upsets, Harry finally learns the truth about his own destiny, and takes up his final task with such fortitude that only the most hard-hearted reader could fail to be moved. Without giving away the ending, I can only assure you that you will not be sorry you signed up for several thousand pages of fantasy adventure, especially when the ultimate payoff is so sweetly satisfying. Think of it as a riddle with a very long set-up, and a surprising punchline. Want a hint? "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." Recommended for children ages 11-99, and the wizards and Muggles who love them.
Recommended September 2007

 
Rankin, Robert
The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse

Fiction
The tone is dry, the plot is twisted, and the title is priceless: when young Jack goes off to the City to make his fortune, he never imagines his new best friends and sworn adversaries would be...toys. Having lost his horse and most of his money, Jack tries to keep from losing his mind in a metropolis where fairy tales come to life, humans are rare, and nursery rhyme characters are known as "pre-adolescent personalities." Befriended by Eddie Bear (a fuzzy, boozy Guy Noir of a teddy), Jack finds himself swept up in the hunt for a serial killer who's taking out targets like Humpty Dumpty and Little Boy Blue, leaving hollow chocolate bunnies as his calling card. If your reading tastes regularly park at the corner of Snark and Parody, you'll want to pull up a chair for this droll afternoon-burner of a book.
Recommended August 2007

 
Book Cover for Mistress of the Art of Death Franklin, Ariana
Mistress of the Art of Death

Fiction
12th-century England was no picnic, despite the glossy patina of legend. Readers who appreciate accurate historical fiction will find themselves intrigued--and, quite possibly, repulsed--by the circumstances in which Franklin's heroine, Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortesia Aguilar, operates in this mystery that piles on unpleasant truths in the best possible way. Our creeptastic tale begins in the year 1170, with the murder of several Christian children in Cambridge. The local Jewish community is blamed, and Henry II (who depends heavily on the tax revenue from said community) is forced to send to Salerno, Italy for a forensics expert, or "master of the art of death." The wily dean of medicine sends, instead of a master, his best mistress of said art, the aforementioned Adelia, who, despite fears of being tried as a witch, is so appalled by child murder that she is determined to find the fiend and bring him to justice. Accompanied by her protectors, Simon and Mansur, Adelia struggles against the ignorance and prejudice endemic to her times while treating the sick of Cambridge, examining the children's corpses for clues, and longing for her far-more-enlightened homeland. Rife with bawdy language, poor hygeine, and statements of appalling taste to contemporary ears, Franklin's novel is, nonetheless, a jawdrop of a page-turner that shatters any illusions the reader might have had about "the good old days." Recommended for CSI-loving types who prefer their historical depictions hard-boiled, as opposed to sunny-side-up, and don't mind being shocked and appalled every few pages or so.
Recommended July 2007

 
Book Cover for A Great and Terrible Beauty Bray, Libba
A Great and Terrible Beauty

Teen Fiction
"I change the world; the world changes me." This is just one of the many lessons Gemma Doyle ponders as she struggles with the changes and challenges of adolescence. On top of the usual concerns teenage girls have--will I make friends? Will the boy I admire like me back?--Gemma's got a laundry list of other problems to tackle. For one thing, she's convinced she caused her mother's death. For another, she's started having strange visions of other worlds. And did I mention that the year is 1895, the place is England, and Gemma's corset is just the most visible symbol of all the forces that seek to stop her from becoming what and who she's meant to become? Deliciously laced with all the trappings of an old-school Gothic novel, Bray's attempt to weave history, poetry, magic and teenage angst is a thrilling read for folks who fancy the Victorian era, a good adventure story, and/or tales about girls coming into their own. Careful readers will quickly figure out the novel's secrets, including who the mysterious Mary Dowd really is. However, this shouldn't spoil the fun of tearing through page after page of dark and stormy nights, hidden diaries, locked rooms, scandalous secrets, after-hours girls' school escapades, and enchanting visits to other worlds. Once you've devoured this novel, you can move on to its sequel, Rebel Angels, for more historical facts and fancy. Recommended for the young and quirky, the older and nostalgic, and anyone who's ever stayed up all night to finish a novel by candlelight while rain poured down in great sheets outside the window.
Recommended June 2007

 
Book Cover for Boneyard Moore, Richard
Boneyard

Graphic Novels
When Michael Paris travels to the town of Raven's Hollow to collect his inheritance, he gets a lot more than he bargained for...namely, a cemetery teeming with supernatural creatures, and a distressed citizenry eager to boot them out. Vowing to postpone his decision about the boneyard's fate until he has more evidence, Michael gets to know the townspeople (breathing and otherwise), and learns that there's a lot more going on in Raven's Hollow than meets the eye. This delightful graphic series is packed with visual and verbal horror-trope gags that will have adults (and older, sophisticated teens) chuckling, if not outright laughing aloud, as Moore tackles a very serious question--what IS evil, anyway?--in a most delightful fashion. If you've ever laughed your way through an episode of MST3K, written a Buffyverse fanfic, or had a serious argument with anyone about which vampire clan would win in a fight, you might want to take a snicker-break and hit the Boneyard.
Recommended May 2007

 
Book Cover for Before You Know Kindness Bohjalian, Chris
Before You Know Kindness

Fiction
Meat or meat-free? This is the personal-political choice that forms the backbone of Bohjalian's stunning novel about a middle-class family on the Eastern seaboard. The action begins with a devestating accident at a summer home in New Hampshire, then spirals back in time to examine how the prinicpal players (and one dangerous prop) came to be there. The primary action revolves around Spencer, a committed animal rights advocate, and his wife Christine, who agrees with Spencer's principles in public, but sneaks Slim-Jims on the side. Their daughter, Charlotte, can't understand why she's not allowed to wear leather skirts or use certain kinds of makeup, and Nan, the family matriarch, can't understand how anyone could choose to live a life without meat. A pack of hungry deer, a father's desire to bond with his son, and the memory of countless lobster dinners contribute to Bohjalian's thoughtful examination of how the carnivore wars look from all sides of the spectrum. By itself alone this attention to structure and theme would make for a satisfying reading experience, but Bohjalian goes even deeper, fleshing out his characters' personality quirks and lacing family interactions with serious questions: what, exactly, is kindness? Who is deserving of love, and why? What is our responsibility to each other, and does it or does it not trump our responsibility to the planet? Can the two duties co-exist peacefully without personal sacrifice? Bohjalian offers no easy answers, but, instead, raises all sorts of passionate, prickly questions that make this novel an excellent choice for book groups who enjoy a healthy debate of social issues, wrapped in an engaging narrative. Four stars and a vegan griller, hold the soy cheese.
Recommended April 2007

 
Book Cover for Good Grief Winston, Lolly
Good Grief

Fiction
Much like actual grief, Lolly Winston's novel Good Grief is easier to process than to describe. Not that processing grief is a picnic, as Sophie finds out when she becomes a widow at thirty-six. Despite antidepressants, a therapist, a support group, and a frighteningly efficient mother-in-law, Sophie is having difficulty getting it together. The chance to start over in another state might be the antidote...that is, if Sophie can get past the notion that there's a "right" way to be a widow. If you have ever lost someone, you will appreciate the skill with which Winston depicts the stages of grieving without toppling over into Hallmark sentimentality or movie-of-the-week melodrama. Sophie handles the challenges of her post-married life much in the same way anyone else would handle a difficult burden: with confusion, creative improvisation, panic, biting humor, lots of Oreos, secret reservoirs of inner strength, and, ultimately glimmers of grace. A well-written piece of women's fiction, yet with the pacing of chick lit, recommended for readers who appreciate well-rounded protagonists, unusual plots, or the gumption it takes to get up and start all over again.
Recommended March 2007

 
Book Cover for American Elf Kochalka, James
American Elf: The Collected Sketchbook Diaries of James Kochalka

Graphic Novels
From Samuel Pepys on down to today's bustling blogosphere, the urge to chronicle the minutiae of one's life persists. Kochalka's warm, witty, and often poignant sketchbook chronicles the random, ordinary moments that make up his multiple identites as husband, friend, comic book artist, and musician. Kochalka draws himself as Magic Boy, an elf from one of his comics, and often depicts his friends as dogs, frogs, and other odd creatures (poor Colin, for example, gets only one Cyclopean eye). This lends an air of bemused detachment to ordinary events like watching leaves fall, drinking beer, flying on airplanes, and, quite often, "rocking hard." The strips are by turns earthy and contemplative. For example, a panel showing Kochalka urinating in the great outdoors or cannoodling with his wife, Amy, might be followed up by ruminations on 9/11, or questions about whether or not he's ready to be a father. Taken as a whole, these seemingly random events in the life of an ordinary guy become the epic story of Everyman, trying to live, love, and have fun in a world that often throws more curveballs than the average batter is prepared to hit. Recommended for those who like their comics true-to-life and down-to-earth, or simply enjoy silly, Rabelaisian peeks into other people's lives.
Recommended February 2007

 
Book Cover for Sorcery & Cecelia Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer
Sorcery & Cecelia, or, The Enchanted Chocolate Pot

Fiction
Readers who enjoyed Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell or Pride and Prejudice might enjoy this charming novel that combines the historical elements of Regency London with the current craze for books about magic. When Kate goes off to London for her first Season, she writes to her cousin Cecelia to tell her about all the goings-on in the city, including her curious misadventure at the Royal College of Wizards. Cecy, for her part, has plenty of stories to tell Kate, especially when a mysterious new girl in the neighborhood turns the heads of all the young gentlemen. Is natural charm involved, or that of an entirely different kind? The girls' adventures entwine around the presence of a mysterious Marquis, a series of charm bags, and the search for a very important chocolate pot. The epistolary narrative works beautifully in terms of creating suspense, and the authors cleverly weave the story elements together into a conclusion that's both pleasing and believable (considering that half the characters in the novel turn out to be magicians, this is no mean feat). Recommended for teen and adult readers searching for something suspenseful and fanciful, and who relish a good (yet wholesome) Regency love story.
Recommended by Leigh Anne, February 2007

 
Book Cover for The Sweet Hereafter Russell Banks
The Sweet Hereafter

Fiction
Some people are incapable of watching a film until they've read the book on which it was based. I am one of those people. Whenever I'm teased about this proclivity, I point to books like The Sweet Hereafter to support my case. Banks's tale of a tragic school bus accident and its aftermath grabbed me by the throat on page one, and didn't let me go until the bitter end, and while Atom Egoyan's companion film of the same name is very good, it cannot compare to the exquisite horror of tracing that fatal bus ride through the driver's memory, knowing what's coming, but not how, powerless to stop it even if you did. Subsequent chapters alternate narrators, describing the weight of the grief, guilt and anger various parents and survivors feel. Russell even manages to bring a sense of gravitas and honor to the motives of a big-city lawyer who comes to Sam Dent to initiate a class-action suit on behalf of the bereaved parents. If you liked the film The Sweet Hereafter, you should definitely pick up the book and drink deeply from the dark and brackish well that inspired it. If this is your first exposure to either work, why not try both and make the comparison yourself?
Recommended by Leigh Anne, January 2007

 
Book Cover Dobson, Joanne
Quieter Than Sleep

Mystery
Higher education sure is murder. At least, it is if you're a 19th-century American Literature scholar at Enfield College. Karen Pelletier, who specializes in Emily Dickinson studies, is thrust into a web of murderous intrigue when a lecherous colleague's corpse literally falls into her arms at the annual Christmas party. Who would strangle a professor with his own tie? Karen matches wits with a variety of suspects and struggles to win the trust of the skeptical police detective (who doesn't have much use for "college folk") assigned to the case. Readers who enjoy mysteries for their plot will probably figure out who the killer is halfway through (I did!). However, what makes this novel fascinating is its deliberate engagement with class issues: as Karen struggles with the variance between her blue-collar roots and her white-collar profession, she is forced to look beyond her own biases and see the people and routines of Enfield college in a new light. There's also a touch of sultry romantic subtext, for those who like a good flirtation, and perhaps the best mystery here is which one of Karen's attractive admirers will win her affections. Recommended for mystery lovers from all class strata who like their books smart AND fun.
Recommended by Leigh Anne, December 2006

 

Akeelah and the Bee

DVD
Hunting for a fun, inspirational family film? Get yourself on the list for Akeelah and the Bee, because it's definitely worth the wait. Eleven-year-old Akeelah Anderson has a natural gift for words and language, but she's afraid of her own potential. With the help of a tough, but supportive, coach (played by Lawrence Fishburne) and the sometimes misguided, but always well-intentioned love of her family (epitomized by Angela Bassett as Akeelah's gritty, no-nonsense mom), Akeelah overcomes her fears and learns to let her inner light shine. The storyline is simple, yet lacking in the saccharine and melodrama that often mar family-friendly movies. Instead, the filmmakers present Akeelah with a string of realistic challenges that she navigates all the way to the Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee. Getting there, though, is definitely half the fun - you'll find yourself on the edge of your seat as Akeelah tackles difficult words and difficult life lessons. Does Akeelah have what it takes to bring home the national championship trophy? Borrow this movie and cheer her on. See also Spellbound, the excellent documentary on real-life word wizards who battle it out on ESPN.
Recommended by Leigh Anne, August 2006

 
Book Cover O'Faolain, Nuala
My Dream of You

Fiction
Journeys to health and wholeness are usually pockmarked with periods of ugliness and despair. O'Faolain, best known for her award-winning memoir, Are You Somebody?, makes this abundantly clear in her painfully frank debut novel. Stunned by the premature death of her best friend, Kathleen de Burca quits her job as a travel writer and returns to Ireland on a whim to research the facts behind the Talbot divorce case, a scandal set during the Great Famine. As Kathleen unravels the facts behind William Mullen and Marianne Talbot's sordid (or was it?) affair, she comes to terms with her own life's traumas. Redemptive, movie-of-the-week fare this is not; O'Faolain pulls no punches in her descriptions of Kathleen's past hurts, which include sexual assault and parental neglect. However, as Kathleen grows to a better understanding of how her life has taken form, she also finds the courage to move forward and make changes, painful though they may be. Readers who enjoy realistic fiction will appreciate O'Faolin's gritty, determined heroine and her self-deprecating humor; those who appreciate a well-constructed plot will revel in the way the author gradually unfolds the secrets of both the Talbots and the de Burcas. Although the novel-within-a-novel structure tends to err on the side of hackneyed, O'Faolain executes it beautifully, leaving the reader anxious to learn what the truth of the Talbot affair really is. Passionate, emotional, and decidedly earthy, My Dream of You is the perfect novel for those who know all too well that it's easy to talk the talk, but harder to walk the walk.
Recommended by Leigh Anne, August 2006

 
Book Cover
Alexander, William
The $64 Tomato

Nonfiction
If you've ever renovated a house, hired a contractor, or planted a garden, you just might get a wicked frisson of schadenfreude from Alexander's misadventures in the Hudson River Valley. After his wife falls in love with a fixer-upper property, known locally as "The Old Brown House," Alexander finds himself plunged into near-constant battles with weeds, critters, and a rotation of neighbors who serve as temporary help, with often disastrous results. Each chapter illuminates a particular man versus nature struggle, with Alexander taking the pratfall each time a critter, weed, or handyman doesn't live up to his grand expectations. It's a one-trick narrative technique, but the tricks are so delightful, and Alexander's dry "I know better now" tone so perfect, the reader can't help but be charmed by the details. Chapter titles like "Christopher Walken, Gardner" and "Childbirth. Da Vinci. Potatoes.," will lure you in; Alexander's wry prose, snappy sentences, and obvious respect for animal and plant life, will keep you reading. Recommended for fans of humorous non-fiction, especially those who enjoy Bill Bryson.
Recommended by Leigh Anne, June 2006

 
Book Cover
Claudel, Philippe
By A Slow River

Mystery
Originally published in 2003 as Les Ames Grises, this literary mystery will be available in English in June 2006. I got my hands on an advance galley, and am pleased to report that it's definitely worth waiting for. In 1917, miles away from the French front, a ten-year-old girl is found strangled near a riverbank. The murder investigation, as revealed in the private memoirs of a policeman assigned to the case, seems to implicate Pierre-Ange Destinat, the town prosecutor. By virtue of his social position, however, he is summarily dismissed as a suspect by the mayor. Could an upright, virtuous man have committed such an awful crime? Claudel leads us from this ghastly question to other, equally disturbing ones as he unravels the history of secrets and lies that pervades the village. At times it's hard to believe that a simple country policeman could be so lyrical and yet so earthy at once; however, as the plot unfolds, it becomes clear that Claudel is really talking about the horrors of war, and how huge social concerns seep down into individual thoughts and acts. That he does this by suggestion, and not by beating the reader over the head with the carnage of WWI, is admirable; however, Claudel pulls no punches about the realities of battle, leaving you to wonder, as you learn one last secret in the final pages, is anyone truly good or beautiful? Or has war spoiled us forever?
Recommended by Leigh Anne, June 2006

 
Leaving the Saints Beck, Martha
Leaving the Saints

Nonfiction
Most people are taught that certain things shouldn't be discussed in polite company. For those readers who have always chafed under such restrictions, there's Martha Beck to light a path. Best known as a regular advice columnist for O, The Oprah Magazine, Beck steps outside this oeuvre to deliver a passionate, poignant account of her childhood in the Church of Latter-Day Saints. Framed by an ongoing confrontation with her father in a hotel room, Beck's narrative alternates between her present and her past, candidly exploring how her own personal experience as a Mormon fits into the history of the faith and its treatment of women in general. The story is not, however, a blanket condemnation of the LDS; Beck writes with genuine affection and anguish, clearly illustrating the pain of growing away from a tradition that mixed its abuses with so much direction, love and support. Alternately snarky and heartbreaking, Beck's sincere search for the divine will appeal to readers who are curious about Mormonism, or who find inspiration and comfort in others' personal faith journeys. Recommended for those who have enjoyed the blunt, earthy meanderings of Anne Lamott, though fans of Sue Monk Kidd may find it a little too graphic for comfort.
Recommended by Leigh Anne, February 2006

 
The World According to Mimi Smartypants Smartypants, Mimi
The World According to Mimi Smartypants

Fiction
Don't judge this book by its cover. If you do, you might pick up this novel assuming it's chick lit, and while chick lit can be wonderful, this is not it. What Mimi Smartypants has given us is a series of amusing rants and speculations, as first published in her blog, designed to make ambivalent thirtysomethings feel better about themselves just the way they are, in a singular, "still attached to my goth phase and loving it, thank you very much," style. See Mimi chat on IM about the raunchy innuendo inherent in medieval cookbooks. See Mimi take pleasure in the foibles of various public transit eccentrics. See Mimi subvert the corporate hegemony by keeping an electric teakettle in her office and using it with reckless abandon, despite many sternly-worded memos forbidding this action. In short, see Mimi cheerfully dismantle the notion that anybody, ever, is "all grown up," or has anything "figured out." It's okay, the book argues. It's okay to be sad and confused. It's okay to be strange and neurotic and cranky and quirky. It's even okay to wear combat boots with fingerless gloves if that makes you happy, and make inappropriate remarks to strangers on trains, provided they provoked you first. Recommended for thirtysomething female readers, the men who love them, and anyone who shares Mimi's dictum that "There is no such thing as one beer."
Recommended by Leigh Anne, February 2006

 
Our Mutual Friend Dickens, Charles
Our Mutual Friend

Fiction
Often overlooked in the classic book lover's mad rush to pore over Great Expectations or David Copperfield one more time, Dickens' last complete novel is the fitting cap to an accomplished career. Peopled with the diverse range of sweethearts and scoundrels one expects from the master, this book will delight those who read Dickens for his oddly amusing characters. The central plot revolves around John Harmon, who will inherit a fortune if he marries Bella Wilfer, a lovely, yet misguided, young lady with materialistic goals; an accident at sea gives Harmon the opportunity to court Bella in disguise, and attempt to mold her character into something a little more tractable. Meanwhile, impoverished young Lizzie Hexam, who makes her living as a waterwoman, finds herself in a love triangle with two completely inappropriate men, one of whom frightens her deeply, while the other tempts her to thoughts of a life far above her station. Secrets, lies, mistaken identity and the blurring of social roles, to say nothing of the inevitable criss-crossing of plots and subplots, make this broody novel a fascinating read for a chilly December night.
Recommended by Leigh Anne, December 2005

 
Carhart, Thad
The Piano Shop on the Left Bank

Nonfiction
In the grand tradition of American expatriates in Paris, Carhart experiences great passion in the City of Lights. His muse, however, is not a lovely lady; instead, he is captivated by Desforges Pianos, a music store he passes every day while taking his children to school. After several frustrated attempts at penetrating the owner's reserve, Carhart finally gains access to the atelier and meets Luc, the storekeeper, who helps Carhart revive his long-lost desire to own a piano and play it regularly. Written in a passionately affectionate style, this memoir will touch anyone who has ever opened his or her heart to the power of music.
Recommended by Leigh Anne, November 2005

 
Price, Robert M., ed.
The New Lovecraft Circle

Horror
Imitation has always been the sincerest form of flattery, and nowhere in fiction is this more true than in H.P. Lovecraft's Cthullu Mythos, a body of work that began with his own creations and extended its tentacles throughout horror fiction with Lovecraft's permission. The collection begins with a helpful essay that explains why this isn't a flagrant copyright violation, and also sets out some ground rules for what, in the editor's opinion, makes a story a legitimate part of the Mythos. If you're not in the mood for scholarship, you can turn directly to the twenty-five stories, which vary in quality, but have some common elements: ancient gods (mostly icky), ancient languages (mostly indecipherable, unless you're the last scion of a long line of wizards), and ancient secrets (most better left alone, all inevitably unearthed by pale, thin, scholarly men whose curiosity tends to do more harm than good). It's not a pretty view of the universe, this notion that beyond the fragile scrim of our dimension there are nasty things with teeth that want their planet back. However, if you want to be scared senseless, you can't do much better than this, unless you grab a volume of the original source material, which I also highly recommend.
Recommended by Leigh Anne, October 2005

 
Wheeler, Thomas
The Arcanum

Fiction
If books were fruit, Thomas Wheeler's first novel would be a tangelo: a curious hybrid creature, known for its juicy pulpiness and strange bite. Imagine, if you will, that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were the head of a secret society dedicated to defeating the forces of evil. Imagine further that said society's fractious, squabbling members included Harry Houdini, Marie Laveau, and H.P. Lovecraft. This unlikely (in more ways than one) cadre of heroes is then plunged into a fast-paced series of events and adventures that feature William Randolph Hearst and Aleister Crowley as supporting characters, a book of apocryphal scripture, a series of grisly murders, a host of gem-eyed demons, a highly disturbing seance, frustrated sexual advances, unrequited love, and more underground horrors than you can shake a very large walking stick at. Wheeler, a veteran screenwriter, has sacrificed character development here for plot; in fact, the short, descriptive chapters read as if he were trying to make it as easy as possible for someone to write the film treatment, and most of the dialogue is better left imagined than described.
The book, however, works on two levels: readers familiar with the subject matter will have a good time wrestling with the novel's historical accuracy, while fans of weird, pulpalicious smackdowns will relish the chases and fight sequences, as well as the gloomy, desperate atmosphere in which they're soaked. By no means a literary classic, this is, nevertheless, the sort of book that, to borrow the fictional Lovecraft's point of view, "makes a dull, gray world suddenly quite remarkable" (250). Recommended for adult readers who like their escapism wrapped up with a little history and a lot of modern-day Matthew Lewis sensibility.
Recommended by Leigh Anne, September 2005

 
See, Lisa
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Fiction
Lily and Snow Flower are laotong, or "old sames." This means they chose to draw up a contract that makes them soul friends for life. But life is very long, and sometimes hard, and the girls' relationship is tested and strained at numerous points as they grow to womanhood in ancient China. Reminiscent of Pearl S. Buck, but more intimately concerned with the secret world of women, Lisa See's delicate historical novel is a story of secrets and lies, love and letters, wishes and writing, friendship and fracture. These various plot threads are framed against the rigid structure of a society that considers a woman worthless unless she bears sons, and binds her feet to suit its own cruel conception of beauty. See's elegantly restrained prose and meticulous attention to detail knocked me out; if you like character-driven historical fiction, and enjoy reading about women's friendships, you will definitely want to give this novel a try.
Recommended by Leigh Anne, August 2005

 
Vance, Jack
Tales of the Dying Earth

Fiction
If the sun were only a few short years from burning out, how would you live your life? If you were a magician or an adventurer in Vance's "Dying Earth" series, your goal would be to make your existence as pleasant and comfortable as possible in the face of oblivion. This collection of the four novellas in the "Dying Earth" series follows the adventures of various spellcasters and wanderers as they travel the globe searching for treasure, magical artifacts, and as many creature comforts as they can acquire. Trickery, guile and deceit abound, and loyalty and love are rare, making them all the sweeter when they pop up in unexpected places. My favorite of the four, "Rhialto the Marvellous," pits the foppish Rhialto against his brother magicians in their quest for magical stones, political influence, and the attentions of the fairer sex. Vance--a/k/a John Holbrook Vance, a/k/a Ellery Queen--is a highly literate, painfully sardonic writer who clearly keeps a dictionary on hand at all times, in order to use strange and unusual words. The effect, however, is more pleasing than pedantic; if you enjoy dreamily strange fantasy novels with dry, wry humor, you should definitely pick up this collection.
Recommended by Leigh Anne, August 2005

 
Aihara, Koji
Even A Monkey Can Draw Manga

Graphic Novel
Manga, for the uninitiated, is the generic term for Japanese comic books. However, it's ever so much more than that, as this tongue-in-cheek guide to the format makes clear. Presented as a series of writing and drawing lessons, this graphic novel actually serves as a salty critique of the many different styles of manga currently available. From choosing a pen name to submitting your work to publishers, each step of the writing process is blown up to mega-dramatic proportions for the purpose of cracking you up. I have to say that it worked for me; I knew very little about manga when I started this book, and now I can say I've learned something, while getting a good chuckle at the same time. In fact, I'm willing to be that the jokes are even funnier if you're a manga aficianado. Recommended for adults, with or without a background in the format, who enjoy a good satire, and don't mind a few Rabelaisian moments while reading.
Recommended by Leigh Anne, August 2005

 
Grandcolas, Lauren Catuzzi
You Can Do It! The Merit Badge Handbook for Grown-up Girls

NonFiction
Did you really enjoy your tenure in Girl Scouts? Or did you miss out on merit badges, and have always felt a little pang at the thought of them? Fret no more, as there is now a brightly-colored, clearly organized handbook of adventurous goodness to help you identify and achieve your goals. Who says dreams are just for kids? Grandcolas's handbook contains an introductory chapter on dreaming and goal-setting, then offers a variety of different adventures to choose from and achieve a "badge" for completing (represented by darling little stickers that come with the handbook). For each activity, be it dancing, cooking, starting a business or traveling the globe, you get a set of concrete steps that gently help you explore new territory. You also get a reading/resource list and advice from an expert, who is interviewed at length about her dedication to the path in which you're dabbling. Highly recommended for women of all ages who want to make positive, lasting changes in their lives, and have a lot of fun doing it.
Recommended by Leigh Anne, July 2005

 
Townsend, J. D.
The Assassin's Dream

Fiction
When a disease eliminates 3/4 of the Earth's male population, the women re-organize the government into a series of World Councils, which strive to improve the world through genetic manipulation. What constitutes improvement, however, is called into question when K-class Assassin Kay Black has a disturbing experience during what should have been a routine assignment. Kay, and others like her, are the products of an underground genetic crusade that has a different vision of humanity's destiny than the Councils' As the superhumans awake to their potential, political chaos and intrigue ensue on multiple levels as the various sisterhoods battle it out for the right to shape Earth's future. As I read, I found myself chilled, fascinated, disturbed and encouraged by turns; if you like political intrigue and/or dystopian sci-fi, you will probably enjoy this disturbing excursion into the world of "what-if."
Recommended by Leigh Anne, July 2005

 
Mosley, Walter
47

Fiction
You already know and love Mosley's mystery fiction, particularly his gripping, gritty novels about private investigator Easy Rawlins. Now you have a chance to experience Walter Mosely in a whole new way as he turns his attention to young adult fiction. Forty-seven is a slave on Tobias Stewart's Corinthian Plantation, which means his life is seemingly destined to be nasty, brutish and short. When a runaway slave named Tall John appears on the plantation, however, everything Forty-seven thinks he knows about life is turned upside down. Tall John is actually a being from another planet, come to find the chosen one who will save not just Earth, but the entire universe, from the evil machinations of a creature called Wall. This amazing, cross-genre story combines the brutal realities of a slave narrative with the magic and mystery of a fantasy novel. Without being preachy or didactic, Tall John shows Forty-seven (and the reader) what it means to be a free man in a chained world. This is a great novel for parents and children to read together, as it works on several levels, and will give readers of any age plenty to talk about. Recommended for readers aged thirteen and up.
Recommended by Leigh Anne, June 2005

 
Gordon, Mary
Pearl

Fiction
Pearl Meyers traveled to Ireland to study linguistics. How is it, then, that we find her now chained to the American Embassy in Dublin, close to death from starvation? Maria, Joseph and Hazel ask themselves this question as they struggle, each in his/her own way, to convince Pearl that life is too precious to throw away, even for a political cause. Told largely in flashback, the novel explores how religion, politics, and the circumstances of birth make us who we are, and shape our relationship to the divine. Although the omniscient narrator's tone is sometimes gratingly pedantic, the narrative is arresting enough to hold all but the most anti-intellectual reader's attention. Pearl's grief over her supposed transgressions, Maria's stubborn blindness to her own faults, and Joseph's temporary flirtation with madness weave around each other like silken cords, which Hazel, Pearl's doctor, must skillfully unwind without slicing the bonds. This book will appeal to those who like literary fiction, as well as those who like to read about spiritual conflicts and crises. A compelling read.
Recommended by Leigh Anne, May 2005

 
Hautman, Pete
Godless

Fiction
This award-winning young adult novel rocked my world with its snappy dialogue and wry perspective. Jason Bock doesn't believe in God. This causes some friction at home and at church, so he decides to invent his own religion in an attempt to prove how stupid organized religion is. Much like bona fide religious faiths, Jason's starts to take interesting turns as his friends get involved and worship "The Ten-legged One" in different ways. What knocked me out about this story was its honest dialogue; nobody comes off as preachy or sulky in this story - just as normal teenagers trying to figure out what they believe, and concerned parents who want their children to be healthy and happy. Lest this sound preachy, let me assure you that there's plenty of teenage geekboy slang and behavior to love, a subtle romantic subplot, and more snails than you can possibly count. Recommended for teens looking for fiction with an edge to it, as well as open-minded adults.
Recommended by Leigh Anne, March 2005

 
Patterson, Richard North
Conviction

Fiction
Terri Paget has fifty-nine days to convince the California courts that her client, Rennell Price, is innocent of the horrific crime for which he has been sentenced to death by lethal injection. This complex, compassionate legal thriller ramps up the suspense page after page and never lets you take anything for granted. Each chapter reveals more about the accused murderer, his victim, the gritty subcultures in which they were raised, and the dark secrets that make achieving justice for Rennell so important to Terri and her family. Patterson's plot unfolds like a poisoned flower, revealing in its petal-pages just how difficult moral, ethical, and legal decisions about the death penalty are. If you like fiction about contemporary issues and social justice--or the lack thereof--you'll definitely like Conviction.
Recommended by Leigh Anne, March 2005

 
Fisher, Len
How to Dunk a Doughnut: The Science of Everyday Life

NonFiction
If you've ever wondered why mundane things work the way they do, you'll get a big kick out of Fisher's tongue-in-cheek explanations of the forces that govern everyday activities like cooking, shopping, and home repair. If you've ever caught a ball or thrown a boomerang, you'll appreciate Fisher's forays into the physics of sports. If you like beer or bubble bath, you'll appreciate the chapter on all things foamy. And if you're searching for just the right language to have "the talk" with your kids, you can skip directly to the chapter entitled "The Physics of Sex." This deceptively slim book is jam-packed with fun facts written in folksy, down-to-earth language that illuminates just how mysterious and wondrous life's simple activities can be. And if that isn't enough for you, Fisher actually includes a technique for dunking cookies that will keep sludgy residue from the bottom of your coffee cup. Who could ask for anything more? Strongly recommended for non-fiction readers who like to win bar bets or impress friends at parties.
Recommended by Leigh Anne, March 2005

 
Waxman, Sharon
Rebels on the Backlot: Six Maverick Directors and How They Conquered the Hollywood Studio System

NonFiction
Fight Club. Boogie Nights. Being John Malkovich. The most arresting films of the 1990s were directed by a small clique of auteurs determined to break new ground in Hollywood. Waxman weaves the tales of six directors together to create a picture of a decade in film, with enjoyable results. Most of the content favors the average moviegoer, but film buffs will enjoy picking up a tidbit or two they might not have known about, say, Steven Soderbergh's creative slump or Paul Thomas Anderson's near-paralytic inability to cut a film down to two-hour length. In fact, the only real drawback to Waxman's storyline is its excessive fixation on Quentin Tarantino's bad behavior, which is neither breaking news nor very interesting. On the whole, however, the narrative is amusing and arresting, a neat portrait of rebels and rulebreakers whose weapon of choice is the motion picture.
Recommended by Leigh Anne, March 2005

 
Haruf, Kent
Eventide

Fiction
Ah, look at all the lonely people in Holt, Colorado. In this sequel to his best-selling novel, Plainsong, Haruf continues the story of the McPheron brothers, their friend Victoria Robideaux, and her daughter Katie. However, the novel is also a story about quiet desperation, bad choices, and dashed hopes. Resignation blankets both the major and minor characters as they weave in and out of each other's lives, changing each other occasionally for the better, but most often for the worse. If you're hoping to escape from everyday life and its problems, this novel isn't for you. If, however, you'd like to read a story about ordinary people trying to scrape by with as much dignity as they can muster, you should definitely take a look at Eventide.
Recommended by Leigh Anne, February 2005

 
The Secret Life of Bees Kidd, Sue Monk
The Secret Life of Bees

Fiction
"Lily Melissa Owens, your jar is open." With only this mysterious wisdom from out of thin air and a portrait of the Black Madonna to guide her, fourteen-year-old Lily travels to Tiburon, South Carolina to create a new future for herself. Accompanied by her grumpy, yet devoted, housekeeper, Rosaleen, Lily is taken in by August Boatwright, a beekeeper who sells honey, candles and other bee products to the townspeople of Tiburon. However, while these details constitute the backbone of the plot, no simple summary can begin to do justice to the moving beauty and sumptuous grace of Kidd's complex first novel about mothers lost, found and acquired through friendship and chance. If you've ever wanted a safe place to belong, you will enjoy the festive atmosphere of August's home, her friends, and the rituals and ceremonies they create to celebrate life, and you will cheer for Lily as she learns lessons both sweet and painful about becoming an adult woman. Once you're completely besotted, you can try Kidd's latest novel, The Mermaid Chair, to see how it measures up...but I think you'll be more likely to flip back to the first page and start again.
Recommended by Leigh Anne, January 2005

 
Garrison, Deborah
A Working Girl Can't Win

Fiction
This slim volume of poetry asserts that life is hard, but you have to play the hand you're dealt with as much grace and style as you can muster, even if you're seething underneath. There's a lot of potential in that theme for whining and self-pity, but Garrison neatly avoids those traps with short, sharp line breaks, clever wordplay, and just the right blend of heartache and humor. "An Idle Thought" is a nice meditation on fantasy and reality, while "November on Her Way" epitomizes helpless longing without stooping to melodrama. The best of the bunch, however, are the work poems, especially "Fight Song" and "Please Fire Me," which will make you gasp and then chuckle, in spite of yourself. If you've ever wanted to go somewhere else that isn't Europe, these poems will take you there.
Recommended by Leigh Anne, January 2005

 
Roth, Philip
The Plot Against America

Fiction
This book has received a great deal of hype and critical acclaim in the last few months, all of which is richly deserved. In this novel Roth departs from his usual rambling, philosophical style to tell a riveting, plot-driven story about an alternate American history in which Charles Lindbergh defeats FDR and becomes president in 1940. Using a clever mix of historical and fictional characters, including his own family members, Roth shows how democracy can be undermined by an insidious series of small actions that gradually erode the Constitution and plunge the country into madness and anarchy. I especially enjoyed Roth's fictional interpretation of the firey, peppery Walter Winchell, who was already larger than life and only gets better in this book. Even if you normally write off bestsellers as hype machines, I strongly recommend you give this book a chance. At the very least, it will make for some provocative dinner table conversations about liberty, democracy, and religious tolerance.
Recommended by Leigh Anne, December 2004

 
Zielnski, Stephan
Bad Magic

Fiction
This short, sharp novel knocked me off my chair with its dark humor and snappy dialogue. San Diego is awash with magic, but only those with their third eyes open can see how much damage has been done by the forces of evil. Eight quirky mages are out to save the day as much as they can, even though they know deep-down it's too big a task for such a small posse. That doesn't stop them from trying, however, or from cracking jokes at each other's expense. Loaded with inside genre jokes and bizarre creatures designed to make your head hurt, Bad Magic is a treat for people who love fantasy, but don't have the time to get started on yet another hack-em-up trilogy. As a bonus, check out the faux-scholarly essay at the end, which teaches you everything you've ever wanted to know about that misunderstood species, Zombi Diego.
Recommended by Leigh Anne, December 2004

 
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Fiction
Once upon a time, in the time of the Raven King, England was awash in magic and Faerie. Susanna Clarke's brilliant debut novel, which took over a decade to write, uses this notion as the base for her sumptuous story about wizards who duel…but only philosophically. Gilbert Norrell is a scholar who prefers magical theory to actual practice. His pupil, Jonathan Strange, is an adventurer who wants to push the envelope of spellcraft. Their shaky relationship, a risky spell with lingering consequences, and a mischievous fairy are all elements of a thrilling story, complete with faux historical footnotes and a guest appearance by Lord Byron. You don't need special powers to love this book: just the willingness-and the free time-to be swept away by 782 pages of literary goodness. Read it by candlelight or by starlight, but please: read it!
Recommended by Leigh Anne, November 2004

 
DeParle, Jason
American Dream

Nonfiction
Although many non-fiction writers strive to be "fair and balanced," DeParle is one of the few authors I've read lately who actually manages to succeed. This is surprising and gratifying, particularly since his subject is welfare reform, the mere mention of which sends many otherwise rational pundits into a tailspin of partisan vehemence. This multifaceted book is primarily the story of Angie, Opal, and Jewell, three women directly affected by Bill Clinton's vow to "end welfare as we know it." However, it is also the story of welfare itself: how it came into being, what it was originally intended to do, and how its purposes changed over time. Several chapters focus exclusively on the political wheeling and dealing that went into Clinton's welfare reform plan. And just to make sure he's covered all of his bases, DeParle gives us the story of Mike, who becomes a welfare caseworker largely by accident and gets to see firsthand just how the system works-or doesn't-for women like Angie, Opal, and Jewell. What I enjoyed most about this book was DeParle's refusal to depict his subjects as victims, saints, or lost causes. What we get in these pages is, instead, a well-rounded story about the complex social issues that contribute to the culture of welfare in America. I recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn more about welfare without getting bogged down in a lot of emotional rhetoric.
Recommended by Leigh Anne, November 2004

 
Baker, Nicholson
Checkpoint

Fiction
I don't normally enjoy Nicholson Baker's work, and "enjoy" is probably the wrong word to describe what reading this novel is like. Nevertheless, I would recommend Checkpoint to anyone who is still trying to make sense of the September 11th tragedy and the subsequent war on terror. Baker's protagonists, Jay and Ben, spend an afternoon together in a hotel room talking about matters both incendiary and banal-sometimes within the same breath. What unites them is their sense of grief for America. However, they disagree about what our country's next steps should be. Although the word "cathartic" is often overused to describe books these days, I really believe that this book captures the spirit of post-9/11 America, and that it should be read and discussed as a cultural artifact of a difficult age.
Recommended by Leigh Anne, October 2004

 
King, Stephen
The Dark Tower

Fiction
All good things come to an end someday, and so it goes with the Dark Tower series. The bittersweet end of Roland's journey, with its T.S. Eliot overtones, may possibly infuriate long-suffering readers who think Roland and his ka-tet deserve a better end than the one King has written for them. In my own humble opinion, however, the reader would do well to remember what the series has told us all along: "Go, then. There are other worlds than these." You might want to keep your Kleenex handy, as the resolutions of several story arcs are definitely weepers. My favorite chapter? "The Sore and the Door (Goodbye, My Dear)," with its drawing motif.
Recommended by Leigh Anne, October 2004

 

My New Filing Technique is Unstoppable by David Rees

Graphic Novel
This graphic novel is an excellent substitute for a Pilates workout. In fact, if your stomach doesn't ache from laughter after the first few pages, I suggest you get yourself to a doctor, as you clearly don't have a pulse. Think that's salty? Wait until you see the frank and honest dialog Rees' characters toss about as they try to make sense of the filing system from hell. I can't decide what I like more: the funky clip art, or the bizarre plotline that makes Dilbert look like a walk in the park. Grab a copy of this book and banish corporate anomie for good…or at least until your next training session.
Recommended by Leigh Anne, October 2004

 
Faust, Minister
The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad

Fiction
Edmonton, Alberta is crawling with inter-dimensional beings. Who knew? Certainly not Hamza and Yehat, the self-proclaimed Coyote Kings of E-town. Their relatively normal lives of minimum-wage toil, community service, and endless geekdom is rudely interrupted by the arrival of the mysterious Sheremnefer, an ethereally lovely woman who leads our heroes on an adventure far greater than any their twenty-sided dice could possibly roll up. Liberally laced with both high-brow and pop culture references, this book is deliciously geeky fun. Final stats: ninety-nine hit points with a plus-five charisma bonus.
Recommended by Leigh Anne, September 2004

 
Evanovich, Janet
Ten Big Ones

Fiction
Pass the Tasty Cakes: Evanovich's latest novel is worth its weight in snack food. Stephanie Plum's most recent misadventure ratchets up the romantic rivalry between Joe Morelli, her steady, and Ranger, her mysterious colleague. Throw in a Frito thief, gang warfare, a cross-dressing bus driver, and some overly friendly guard dogs, and you have one stunner of a beach book.
Recommended by Leigh Anne, August 2004

 
Bin Ladin, Carmen
Inside the Kingdom: My Life in Saudi Arabia

Nonfiction
The author's candid account of her rocky marriage to -- and subsequent divorce from -- a member of the Bin Laden clan is patently disturbing. Although Osama Bin Laden's name surfaces from time to time as an example of extreme religious fundamentalism, Bin Ladin is more concerned with describing the role of women in Saudi culture. Part tell-all and part cultural critique, the short chapters and intimate details make this a quick, interesting read.
Recommended by Leigh Anne, August 2004

 
Robbins, Alexandra
Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities

Nonfiction
Drugs, alcohol, date rape, and eating disorders lace the pages of this candid look at sorority life in the South. Robbins went undercover in four different Greek organizations to find out what really happens to sorority pledges, and the stories she tells are the stories both parents and students need to hear. However, the author's inability to find any redeeming qualities in Greek life leave her writing open to charges of bias. Check it out and decide for yourself.
Recommended by Leigh Anne, August 2004