Archive for the ‘read in 2008’ Category

Gods Behaving Badly is a brilliant, impressive first novel, and the funniest book I’ve read in a long time. It’s a fast, fun read, something to pick up after a book with heavier themes.

In Gods Behaving Badly, Marie Phillips puts the Greek gods of Olympus in modern day London, and she does so in a way that is hilarious and believable, given what is known about the gods and today’s society. Artemis, goddess of hunting, is a dog walker; Apollo, god of the sun, is a television psychic; Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty, is a sex phone operator; Eros, god of love, is a Christian; and Dionysus, god of wine and merriment, is a DJ and nightclub owner. These gods and goddesses, along with Athena, Ares, Demeter, Hades, Hermes, and a weak and withered Zeus, live in a filthy house that is in horrible condition. People don’t believe in them anymore, so their powers are weakening, and they show signs of aging.

When Aphrodite seeks revenge on Apollo for refusing to use his powers to heat her shower water, a love arrow shot by Eros causes Apollo to fall in love with Alice, a meek, plain woman who ends up being hired by Artemis to clean the gods’ home. Apollo’s love is unrequited, and he takes drastic measures that ultimately put the entire world in jeopardy. The fate of the world is in the hands of Artemis, Alice, and Neil, the nerdy engineer who is quietly in love with Alice.

I know nothing about Greek mythology, but the story was easy to follow and enjoy. Phillips has a great sense of humor, and it shows in her writing. To me, the writing style was similar to what you’d find in a good chick-lit book, like Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic series, absent the standard chick-lit themes of shopping and looking for a man. Gods Behaving Badly has some sex, bad language, and a love story, and despite the humor and lightness of the plot, Phillips gets you thinking about the state of society. Zeus is holed up in an attic room glued to the television, for instance, and Apollo acts harshly when snubbed by a woman at the beginning of the book. Also, the book raises some questions about belief systems, guilt, and forgiveness. Gods Behaving Badly is on my list of favorite books of 2008, and I could easily see myself re-reading it at some point.

Disclosure:  I received a copy of Gods Behaving Badly from Hachette Book Group for review purposes. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2008 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.


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What Happy Parents Do: Ninety-Three Cents and a Little ‘Humpty Dumpty’–The Loving Little Rituals of a Child-Proof Marriage by Carol J. Bruess, Ph.D., and Anna D.H. Kudak, M.A., is a cute book with 50 tips on how to maintain a loving marriage after having children. I was drawn to the book right away by its brown and blue color scheme, and it comes with one of those attached cloth bookmarks, which is a nice touch.

Each tip starts with a story from a happy couple, and the authors provide some advice about putting the story to use in your own marriage. One story features a couple with a private stash of frozen cookie dough and ice cream that is pulled out only after the kids are asleep. Others talk about constructive ways to express anger, how to find time to talk when children are running all over the house, rituals couples can start as a way to spend more time together, and ways for couples to celebrate their marriage more than once a year.

The most entertaining part of the book is about developing a secret language for sex that is safe for children’s ears. The authors list numerous sayings that can be used to let your partner know you’re in the mood. “Want to take a porking?” and “Frank wants to go swimming” made me laugh so hard I nearly cried. Seriously, if my husband said either of those to me, he wouldn’t get very far or score any points in the romance department. There also was a page of nicknames for certain male and female body parts, and I just about died when I got to “USDA Choice.” I can’t believe someone would name their privates that, but it certainly is funny.

Overall, I thought this was a cute book, and it would make a great gift for new parents. (I’ll be passing mine on to my sister, who gave birth to my nephew in October.) While I’m not sure how many of these tips I’ll put to use (certainly not the aforementioned sex sayings), it got me thinking about the routines and rituals my husband and I have and other things we could do to strengthen our relationship. Raising a child is hard work, and there are so many things that pop up day to day and add stress to our relationship. It’s important that we take time for ourselves, constantly show our love for one another, and try to set a good example for our daughter. We’re far from perfect (it’s so easy to bicker over the littlest things), but we’re happy. What Happy Parents Do shows how even the smallest of gestures can mean a lot.

Disclosure:  I received a copy of What Happy Parents Do from Wesman PR for review purposes. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2008 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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I’ve read a lot of books this year (well, a lot for me), and I feel lucky because I enjoyed a good number of them. Out of these 60 or so books, Michelle Moran’s Nefertiti was my favorite. This was my first foray into historical fiction that wasn’t a war novel, and I was hooked from page one.

Nefertiti’s quest for power as the chief wife of Amunhotep IV is told from the point of view of her beloved younger sister, Mutnodjmet. Nefertiti was supposed to rein in Amunhotep, but she wound up indulging his every whim. It doesn’t take long for the pair to replace Egypt’s polytheistic religion with a monotheistic one centered on Aten, the sun. Nefertiti’s desire to be more powerful than the queens before her and even her husband, to hell with the consequences, ultimately leads to her downfall.

While she is a cold, unlikeable character at many points in the book, Nefertiti is fascinating. She is a strong women who knows how to get her way, mostly through charm and manipulation. Because her story is told by her sister, Mutny, who loves Nefertiti unconditionally and whose loyalty to her sister pulls her away from the quiet life she desires with her true love General Nakhtmin, the reader is able to feel some sympathy for the overbearing queen when tragedy strikes.

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot; I knew nothing about the real Nefertiti when I opened the book, and I think that made it more enjoyable to read. I had no idea what would happen next. Moran does a brilliant job painting a portrait of ancient Egypt. I could see the scenes in my mind, and I got caught up in the story as if I was there. At first, it was hard to keep all the Egyptian names straight, but the family tree in the front was a big help. The long names didn’t stop me from being absorbed by the story, though.

It’s obvious Moran did her homework and visited the tombs in Egypt, and her writing is flawless. I’ve read several reviews saying her second book, The Heretic Queen, the sequel to Nefertiti, is even better. I’ll be reading that one soon, and I bet I’m in for a real treat!

Disclosure:  I won a copy of Nefertiti in a blog contest. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2008 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Back in April, I had the pleasure of hearing Susan Muaddi Darraj read from her collection of stories, The Inheritance of Exile: Stories from South Philly. The reading was the kickoff for a writer’s conference I attended the next day with Serena (you can read about my experience here). The excerpt Muaddi Darraj read pulled me in right away, and I snagged a copy of the book at the end of the reading. (She even signed it while I sat there staring dumbly because I never know what to say to an author when they’re standing right in front of me.)

It only took me two days of commuter reading to finish The Inheritance of Exile. These stories, which can stand alone but fit perfectly together as a novel, focus on four Arab-American women, friends who grew up together in Philadelphia: Nadia, whose mother won’t let her tell her boyfriend about the extent of her injuries from a car accident because it would shame his family; Aliyah, a writer who clashes with her parents when she inserts true family stories into her fiction and who meets a man during a summer visit to Ramallah and realizes she’s too Arab to be an American and too American to be an Arab; Hanan, whose decision to marry an American drives a wedge between her and her mother and who later realizes her husband doesn’t understand her; and Reema, whose boyfriend is obsessed with the idea of Arabian harems and gets all of his ideas about her culture from old movies.

In weaving in stories of their mothers, who are Palestinian immigrants, The Inheritance of Exile reminds me a lot of Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club (which is a good thing because The Joy Luck Club is among my all-time favorite books). Cultural tensions abound, but there also is a sense of fierce love, of a mother’s desire for her daughter to accomplish more than she did in her homeland. Here are two passages from Hanan’s story, “Preparing a Face,” that illustrate these tensions:

She walked out of the kitchen, out of the house, though before the door closed, she heard her mother say, “That’s how she is, my American daughter–if she doesn’t like something, she leaves. Too busy for us stupid Arabs. She thinks she hurts us by doing that.” (page 85)

“So you fight with your mother, it seems,” said Rola, moving closer to her. Hanan felt suddenly protective of her. “Does it happen very much?”

“Once in awhile,” said Hanan. “She thinks I should be some perfect Arabic girl, you know, that I should enjoy making cookies and looking for a husband.” (page 91)

Muaddi Darraj does a wonderful job moving between the characters and the stories, giving each a distinctive voice. The stories flowed so beautifully and read so easily that it wasn’t long before I turned the last page, and it was sad, feeling like I’d closed the door on old friends. I don’t know what it’s like to live with immigrant parents (my mom was 3 when she moved to the U.S. from Germany and doesn’t remember much about her life there), nor do I know what it’s like to feel like I don’t belong, but Muaddi Darraj made it easy to connect with and feel for her characters. This is one of those few books I could read again and again.

I might not have known what to say when I briefly met Susan at the pre-conference reading, but I had no problem asking her questions via email, and Susan graciously answered them all!

Is The Inheritance of Exile inspired by personal experience?

Everyone asks me this, and the answer is yes and no. “Yes” in the sense that it is set in a neighborhood where I grew up–the St. Nicholas of Tolentine parish on 9th and Watkins Streets in South Philly–but “no” in that none of the events in the lives of the characters happened to me or to anyone I know. Of course, generational conflicts, intercultural tensions are things that I experienced, too, but not in the specific ways that my characters did.

Which of the characters, if any, are you most like? Has your family been supportive of your need to write about the immigrant experience and clashes between immigrants and their American children?

I guess I am most like Aliyah, the one who is a writer. Again, though, I have a father–unlike Aliyah’s–who encouraged me to write, without limitations on subject. He was and is always supportive of what I do. I guess in Aliyah’s story, I tried to imagine, “What if I did NOT have that support? How would things be different?”

I come from a family of readers: my father is a literary reader, and he especially loves poetry. I have said in the past that he used to walk around the house, doing chores, etc., and just recite passages of Arabic poetry from memory. My mother is more of a nonfiction reader, and she taught me how to read–how to put words and sounds together–when I was a child, before I even started school. She used to read books to my brothers and me all the time, take us to the library on a regular basis. My father always told us stories at night, before bedtime, stories that he would make up to entertain us.

What is your favorite story in the book? Was there one that was harder to write or more personal than the others?

Probably “The Journey Home” was most difficult to write. I had to stretch my imagination there, because Hanan has such a tense relationship with her mother, whereas for me, my mother and I are quite like best friends.

Do you have a particular writing routine? Where is your favorite place to write?

Right now, I have two toddlers at home and a third baby on the way, so my writing/reading time has been traded away for Eric Carle and Dr.Seuss books! I do snatch away some writing time during the Christmas holiday and summertime, when I am not teaching. Once in a while, I go back to my old routine, which was getting up early–by 5am–and writing until 8am or so… that was always my favorite time and most productive time.

What is the best book you’ve read this year?

The Map of Home by Randa Jarrar

Are you working on another book? If so, could you give us a hint as to what it’s about?

I’m halfway through a novel, although it is still “forming”–I may cut out a lot of what I have already written as it gels.

Any advice to aspiring novelists?

Just write a lot and read even more. Reading is the best education for a writer. It’s also useful to read magazines of the writing profession, like Poets & Writers and The Writer’s Chronicle, which often have terrific essays on craft.

Susan, thanks so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to answer my questions! I wish you the best in your writing endeavors! And congratulations on the new baby!

If you’d like a chance to win a signed copy of Susan Muaddi Darraj’s ,The Inheritance of Exile: Stories from South Philly please leave a comment on this post and include your e-mail address. (If I don’t have a way to contact you, either through e-mail or a blog, your entry won’t be counted!) The giveaway is open internationally and will end at 11:59 pm EST on Dec. 17, 2008.

**Please note that this giveaway is now closed**

Disclosure:  I received a copy of The Inheritance of Exile: Stories From South Philly from a writer’s conference.  I was not obligated to review it. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2008 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Hitler and Mars Bars by Dianne Ascroft tells the story of Erich Schnell, who is just four years old when the book begins in March 1945. Erich and his brother, Hans, live in Goldschmidthaus Children’s Home in Bredenscheid, Germany, and though they are starving due to food shortages, the home offers them a better life than their mother could on her salary from the train station. Erich is very close to his mother, who visits as often as she can, but when the rail yard is heavily bombed, she no longer comes to see him.

After World War II ends, Germany is in ruins, many children are orphaned, and food remains scarce. The Irish Red Cross launches Operation Shamrock (a real program, though Ascroft’s story is fiction), which ships many German children to Ireland to live with foster families until their families back home are ready to care for them again. In Germany, Erich lived on watery porridge and bits of rancid meat, and once in Ireland, he receives full meals for the first time in his young life. At first, his stomach cannot handle all the food or the movement of the boat taking him to his new life, but he becomes stronger. His first foster family doesn’t work out, and he moves to a farm and grows attached to Daddy Davy and Aunt Elsie. When he is reunited with Hans, at first he does not want to share his foster family, but they eventually become a strong family unit–the first real family either of the boys has ever known. Unfortunately, Erich and Hans cannot stay with Daddy Davy and Aunt Elsie, and their journey to belong continues, with many ups and downs.

Though Hitler and Mars Bars seemed long in some parts, I thought it was a great book. Ascroft brings attention to Operation Shamrock, a program I knew nothing about prior to the story, and instead of simply providing details about the program, she brings it to life through the story of Erich and Hans. The book is told from Erich’s point of view, giving readers a glimpse of how hard it was for children to come to terms with the horrors of war. Though relatively safe at Goldschmidthaus Children’s Home, Erich saw bombs in the distance and came in close contact with German soldiers. Ascroft does a wonderful job making Erich seem real; she shows him as a rambunctious boy who often acts before thinking about the consequences. While not everyone who crosses paths with Erich has his best interests at heart, Hitler and Mars Bars shows that in the aftermath of war, there is still reason to hope.

Disclosure:  I received a copy of Hitler and Mars Bars from the author for review purposes. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2008 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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I was thrilled when Marvin Wilson asked me to be part of the virtual blog tour for his latest book, Owen Fiddler, and I’m honored to be the pre-launch stop today and the kickoff event tomorrow. Marvin runs the award-winning inspirational blog, Free Spirit, and I’ve enjoyed reading his posts over the last few months. Marvin is quite a character, very down to earth and humorous, and I’ve come to admire him very much.

If you’re a regular reader of Free Spirit, you know that Marvin’s posts really get you thinking. He doesn’t beat around the bush, and he pushes you to the edges of your comfort zone–something I think we all need from time to time. He does the same thing in Owen Fiddler.

“There’s a price to pay for every parlor dance and play.” This line pops up quite a few times in the book, and the main character, Owen Fiddler, finds out the truth in that statement the hard way. Owen Fiddler is an alcoholic, a druggie, an adulterer, and just an all-around horrible person who goes through life pointing fingers at everyone for the bad things that happen to him. He never once blames the breakup of his marriage on the fact that he’ll sleep with any woman just so long as she’s breathing. It’s easy to read Owen’s story and think to yourself, “Boy, this guy’s a major loser! I’m so glad I’m not like him.”

But Owen Fiddler is an “everyman,” and this morality tale forces you to take a good look inside yourself. Am I really better than Owen Fiddler? Have I ever treated myself or someone else badly? Have I ever told someone, “If you hadn’t done this, then I wouldn’t have done that?” God doesn’t view some sins as more acceptable than others; they’re all terrible, and they all prevent us from accepting the love and forgiveness He offers each and every one of us.

Owen does something awful at the beginning of the book, something he feels makes him responsible for his daughter’s death. The book then shifts to the past, to when Owen and his “perfect” brother Paize are just children, and moves forward through his miserable life. When the book makes it back to the present, a decision Owen made several years prior comes back to haunt him, and something needs to be done quickly before Owen’s soul is lost for good.

I liked Marvin’s straightforward writing style, and at only 205 pages, he packs a punch without saying too much. The scenes involving Owen’s daughter, Frenda, and Kris (or Jesus Christ) had a magical, sensual quality to them, and while this vision of heaven isn’t what I expected, it certainly didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the book. Here’s an example:

Every thought, memory and experience she had ever had collapsed into one implosion of experiential “now.” Ecstasy, rapture and love beyond anything measurable by human sensual, sexual or emotional capacity blasted her apart. Replacing her sense of being was One Unified Omnipresent Pure Love. The eyes of Frenda and Kris melted together into one eye that could see itself as itself; and at the same time not itself, but none other than the WORD. They became and made pure love with such intensity that the stars shone brighter on the dark side of earth. (page 179)

I don’t know if it’s possible to finish Owen Fiddler and not take a step back and wonder how the actions we take affect other people or question whether we’re on the right path. Owen Fiddler definitely isn’t a role model, but you can learn a lot from him.

Disclosure:  I received a copy of Owen Fiddler from the author for review purposes. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2008 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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They smiled at each other, the kind of empathetic smile third graders and mature women alike gave when they felt bonded to each other. They didn’t have any answers, and they hadn’t experienced any epiphanies, yet Whitney felt as though her yoke had been lifted. If anything, Audrey was bracing the other end, and for now, that was good enough.

(from Off the Menu, page 178)

I’m not going to beat around the bush. I loved this book. I had a feeling I would love it, and I was right. When I opened Off the Menu, I thought I was going to love it for the similarities to Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club (which is among my all-time favorite books). I’ve always been drawn to stories about immigrants and clashes with their American-born children, as I witnessed such conflict between my grandmother and my mother, who came to the U.S. from Germany when she was just 3 years old. But what really hooked me was Christine Son’s honest portrayal of long-time friendships.

In Off the Menu, Son tells the story of three Asian-American women who have been friends since high school. Whitney Lee is a lawyer who’d rather pursue a music career, but her parents’ expectations keep her from attempting to fulfill her dream. Audrey Henley is expected to maintain a certain image as the adopted daughter of the billionaire owner of a petroleum company, but all she wants is to become an English professor and marry her boyfriend, who is content in his job as a teacher. And Hercules Huang is a famous chef and restaurant owner who is loud and obnoxious, but only to hide her loneliness and hostile feelings toward her father.

Until they take a road trip to Audrey’s parents’ home in Austin, Texas, the three don’t really confide in one another about their troubles, worried about what the others will think. This aspect of their friendship felt real to me, as no one wants to feel like a failure around someone they perceive to be extremely successful. But the joys of friendship come when you break down the walls and bear your vulnerable souls.

While all three women were likable, my favorite character was Jimmy Fujimoto, an artist Audrey meets at a coffee shop who travels with them on their road trip. His character is so full of life and so entertaining, and his scenes liven things up when the women are feeling down.

Son’s writing pulls you in from the beginning, and she does a great job adding a bit of humor to complicated relationships. If you’ve been following the Off the Menu tour and reading Christine’s guest posts and interviews, you’ll understand when I say she’s funny and sounds like someone you’d love to have as a friend. If you haven’t followed the tour, you’re in luck because I have the pleasure of welcoming Christine to Diary of an Eccentric for a humorous guest post about writing and inspiration. Thanks for stopping by, Christine!

What Are You Looking at? Are You Writing About Me?
by Christine Son

The other day, a group of my friends and I went to lunch, and at the table next to us, a woman was sitting alone, looking around the restaurant. She dug furiously into her bag, checked her cell phone, clearly agitated, looked around again, checked her phone, looked, checked, looked. My friends may have noticed her, but if they did, they didn’t comment on her behavior. They were too busy talking about the drunken weekends they had all had. But I kept sneaking glances at our neighbor. What was she doing? Was she waiting for someone? If so, who? Her husband? Were they in the middle of a nasty divorce and his tardiness was the reason for their relational demise? Was she about to be interviewed for a new job while taking a lunch break from her current one? Was she the first to show up to a blind date? Why was she so angry? Was she just an unpleasant shrew? Or did she have reason to be upset? To anyone else, she might have just been a harried patron, starved to hypoglycemic irritation. But to me, she was a story, a character with hidden motivations and goals, which were clearly being stymied. And as I turned to my friends and added my own snarky comments about debauched parties and office politics, I realized that I did the same thing with them as I did the woman. I noticed their inflections, their tilts of the head, the way they used their hands to emphasize the funnier parts of their stories. I absorbed the way they laughed or snorted, how their eyes sparkled or reflected prismatic colors in the sunlight. I took in what they were wearing, how one kept adjusting the collar of her shirt and how another scrunched her never-will-be-wavy hair. And I listened to their stories, the content and details of what had transpired on their Saturday nights, but perhaps with less ridiculousness than the version they were then giving.

As a person, I’m naturally perceptive, I think. I’m quick to pick up on someone’s mood, on the fleeting looks she might give another to relay her dismay or bewilderment. I’m also fairly introspective, and will keep events and conversations in mind for a long time, often rolling them through my head repeatedly like movie scenes so that I can layer them with my observations. I linger over these things because relationships—human interactions in all their levity and curiosities—arrest me. What goes on inside a person’s head fascinates me. It’s because of these interests that I write character-driven fiction instead of mysteries or horror (and also because I spook too easily to write those genres). And when I’m in the middle of a draft, I find that these qualities kick into high gear, sometimes rendering me hypersensitive. Or at least I feel as though I’m overanalyzing everything, not just in my writing, but in life in general. I don’t know if other writers experience the same heightening of his or her senses, if a horror novelist starts to see evil lurking in the mundane. At some point, I have to stop myself from thinking that every comment or email or silence is indicative of anything more than the face value of it. That sometimes, a statement is merely the product of impulse, that unresponsiveness is the result of distraction. Why do I do attribute meaning to everything when clearly not everything carries it? It may be because in a book, there are no wasted scenes. Or insignificant dialogue. Or haphazard action. Novels are the grand distillations of life, the collection of conversations and events placed specifically to move the story forward. And through these lenses, everything in the world garners import, deserved or not. Some people call that insight. Others may call it obsessive-compulsive disorder. But it’s where I draw my inspiration, the myriad possibilities why a person acts the way she does, why she says certain things, why she looks the way she does. And so I watch. And listen. And try not to look like a freakish stalker as I absorb the kernels of the everyday that may ultimately drive an entire book.

So there you have it. Yes, I may very well be looking at you, and yes, I may be writing about you, too. But it’s because you are endlessly fascinating, a relentless source of inspiration and potential that feeds my imagination. And at the end of the day, there’s nothing more a writer can ask for.

Would you like to read Off the Menu? Christine would love to give a copy to one lucky reader (international entrants welcome)! All you have to do is leave a comment here AND tell me a funny or interesting story about your best friend. (Or you can tell me your favorite book about friendship.) Deadline to enter is 11:59 pm EST on Wed. Dec. 3, 2008. Good luck!

**Please note that this giveaway is now closed**

I’d like to thank the wonderful ladies at TLC Book Tours for this wonderful opportunity! Check out the rest of the Off the Menu stops here!

Disclosure:  I received a copy of Off the Menu from NAL Trade for review purposes. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2008 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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