Thursday, August 21, 2008

Book 41: A.D. 62: Pompeii

TITLE: A.D. 62: Pompeii
AUTHOR: Rebecca East
STARTED: August 6, 2008
FINISHED: August 10, 2008
PAGES: 292
GENRE: Fiction

FIRST SENTENCE: My Shakespeare-loving parents named me Miranda; and like my namesake, I longed for distant worlds.

SUMMARY: [From] A twenty-first century woman is stranded in first century Pompeii when a time travel experiment goes awry; she is sold to a wealthy family as a house slave. This provides her with an intimate, upstairs/downstairs perspective on household life in ancient times. At first she does menial work, but she improves her situation by telling stories and making prophecies. As her influence grows, she wins the love of her master and his daughter and provokes the vengeful jealousy of his wife.

In this gentle fable about the power of stories to change people's lives, the heroine uses sources that include fairy tales and great works of literature to argue for women’s rights and the humanity of slaves, and to inspire herself and others to be resourceful, courageous and independent. Miranda's own life becomes as mythic as the stories she tells. In a narrative that is part adventure, part romance, and part fantasy, the heroine triumphs over adversity and makes a place for herself in the world of the past.

THOUGHTS: This novel was just bad fan-fiction for the ancient world. East was apparently writing a research paper on everyday living and then, one day, decided to insert a narrative. It was interesting to read because of the facts, but I would have rather read this book as a non-fiction.

Also, for a book set in Pompeii, I was greatly disappointed in the lack of volcano explosion.

RATING: 4/10 [An "okay" book]

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Book 40: La Cucina

TITLE: La Cucina: A Novel of Rapture
AUTHOR: Lily Prior
STARTED: August 3, 2008
FINISHED: August 5, 2008
PAGES: 263
GENRE: Fiction

FIRST SENTENCE: I lie luxuriantly on the table, the cool, silky oak sticking to my naked flesh.

SUMMARY: [From] Since childhood, Rosa Fiore -- daughter of a sultry Sicilian matriarch and her hapless husband -- found solace in her family's kitchen. La Cucina, the heart of the family's lush estate, was a place where generations of Fiore women prepared sumptuous feasts and where the drama of extended family life was played out around the age-old table.

When Rosa was a teenager, her own cooking became the stuff of legend in this small community that takes pride in the bounty of its landscape and the eccentricity of its inhabitants. Rosa's infatuation with culinary arts was rivaled only by her passion for a young man, Bartolomeo, who, unfortunately, belonged to another. After their love affair ended in tragedy, Rosa retreated first into her kitchen and then into solitude, as a librarian in Palermo. There she stayed for decades, growing corpulent on her succulent dishes, resigned to a loveless life.

Then, one day, she meets the mysterious chef, known only is I'Inglese, whose research on the heritage of Sicilian cuisine leads him to Rosa's library, and into her heart. They share one sublime summer of discovery, during which I'lnglese awakens the power of Rosa's sensuality, and together they reach new heights of culinary passion. When I'Inglese suddenly vanishes, Rosa returns home to the farm to grieve for the loss of her second love. In the comfort of familiar surroundings, among her, growing family, she discovers the truth about her loved ones and finds her life transformed once more by the magic of her cherished Cucina.

THOUGHTS: I want to lick this book. Seriously. The way Prior writes about food had my mouth watering from the first few pages. The plot of this book is simple - spinster reflects on life as she experiences and adult love affair - but the writing is magical. I devoured this book. Devoured it whole.

Rosa is a character I can relate to. She's serious minded but given to daydreams. She is independent but recognizes that there is a community of people supporting her. She is also passionate. Passionate about food and, later, passionate about her lover(s). She was simply real and someone I would want to know (not just because she's one hell of a cook). Prior must have had Rosa floating around in her head for some time. She is a complete character, one with feelings, emotions, and a story.

That story is the foundation for this book. While the novel focuses on Rosa's mid-life love affair, it is told through her reminiscence of the past. The story is not linear, but the reader is never lost. I'm going to be cheesy (pun!) and say that this book unfolds like a delicious lasagna. There are layers upon layers of goodness that are made better by the fact that they are consumed together.

I would read this book again simply for the lyrical writing. It is so descriptive - particularly when Prior talks about food and cooking - that my mind was transported. I was not in my room. I was in a kitchen in Italy, surrounded by the aromas of baking bread and olives. The food is brilliantly portrayed and so are the settings. Having been to Italy I can tell you that Prior got it right. The streets, the apartments, the stores, the essence that is Italy was there. The writing of this story grabbed me from the first sentence and enchanted me until the last page.

The only problem I had with La Cucina was that the ending was wrapped up in a neat bow. I know Prior was writing her own fairytale, but the ending felt lackluster in comparison to the rest of the novel.

Fun fact! The Boyfriend and I made ravioli from scratch the day before I started this. This first chapter starts with a woman making ravioli. Clearly my timing was fated. Also, clearly we forgot the water in our pasta dough and that was why it was a little tough. We shall just have to try again.

RATING: 8/10 [Terrific]

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Book 39: Seduced by a Spy

TITLE: Seduced by a Spy
AUTHOR: Andrea Pickens
STARTED: July 25, 2008
FINISHED: August 3, 2008
PAGES: 358
GENRE: Romance

FIRST SENTENCE: The wind whipped against her cheeks, a hard, biting cold that cut down to the bone.

SUMMARY: [From] Hot-tempered and a warrior to the bone, Shannon is the most daring of "Merlin Maidens." Her assignment: stop the fiendishly cruel assassin who is targeting a top British ballistics expert's family. Marshalling her intelligence, fighting skills, and weapons is easy. Being forced to work with the rakishly handsome Russian spy she loathes is something else.

Witty, resourceful, and notorious for his rakish charm with women, Alexandr Orlov tempts Shannon's fierce reserve and lithe body to win her trust. But in the remote Scottish castle where they are sent to protect the innocent, their games of parry and thrust could end in death. A ruthless enemy is watching...and planning to turn their passion into the most dangerous weapon of all.

THOUGHTS: Man. I was really looking forward to the pairing in this book. They had such chemistry when they were introduced in the first book.... chemistry that was nowhere to be found in this book. My problems with the plot of the book (bad guy? what non-existent, until he starts blowing shit up bad guy?) are completely overshadowed by the fact that the lead characters just did not work together. He's too cocky. She's too "I'm scared but I need to do this to prove that I am a strong woman"y. Yeah. Annoying.

The writing and pacing were fine, but I was too disappointed with the lead characters to actually care.

RATING: 4/10 [An "okay" book]

Friday, August 01, 2008

Book 38: Designing Web Usability

TITLE: Designing Web Usability
AUTHOR: Jakob Neilsen
STARTED: Not a clue
FINISHED: July 30, 2008
PAGES: 420
GENRE: Non-Fiction

FIRST SENTENCE: I am a usability expert, so my choice of medium is governed by what is most usable for a given communications goal and not by what is most in fashion at a given time.

SUMMARY: [From] Look at the Web as you've never seen it before, through the eyes of the average user.

Users experience the usability of a site before they have committed to using it and before they have spent any money on potential purchases. The Web is the ultimate environment for empowerment. He or she who clicks the mouse decides everything.

In this landmark design reference, the world's acknowledged authority on Web usability, Jakob Nielsen, shares with you the full weight of his wisdom and experience. From content and page design to designing for ease of navigation and users with disabilities, Jakob Nielsen delivers complete direction on how to connect with any Web user, in any situation.

THOUGHTS: Utterly pointless.

RATING: 1/10 [Don't waste your time]

Book 37: Everything Is Illuminated

TITLE: Everything Is Illuminated
AUTHOR: Jonathan Safran Foer
STARTED: July 15, 2008
FINISHED: July 23, 2008
PAGES: 276
GENRE: Fiction

FIRST SENTENCE: My legal name is Alexander Perchov.

SUMMARY: [From] With only a yellowing photograph in hand, a young man -- also named Jonathan Safran Foer -- sets out to find the woman who may or may not have saved his grandfather from the Nazis. Accompanied by an old man haunted by memories of the war; an amorous dog named Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior; and the unforgettable Alex, a young Ukrainian translator who speaks in a sublimely butchered English, Jonathan is led on a quixotic journey over a devastated landscape and into an unexpected past.

By turns comic and tragic, but always passionate, wildly inventive, and touched with an indelible humanity, this debut novel is a powerful, deeply felt story of searching: for the past, family, and truth.

THOUGHTS: I enjoyed this book more for the writing style than the story or plot. Foer bounces between broken English, stream of consciousness, and straight-forward narrative. None of the jumps of style and voice lost me. In fact, they worked to tell the emotion of the story better than a "regular" narrative would.

I found the relationships crafted in the book to be very interesting. Alexander is the focus of the book, and yet it is not his story. He is merely the medium for everyone else's interactions. The only storyline Alexander gets on his own is the relationship with his grandfather. That plot is secondary to the rest of the book and, yet, I found that relationship to be the most important. It was about the here and now, where every other relationship was in the past.

I am still debating whether or not I like this book. I enjoyed reading it. In fact, I looked forward to my nightly bedtime page turns because I wanted to know how it ends. But, most of this book as flitted away from me already. It was a good read as a read it, but not one that will stick with me for much longer.

RATING: 6/10 [Good]