Category Archives: Book Reviews

The Martian by Andy Weir and Ruffino’s Il Ducale Toscana

The Martian pic1If you watch TV at all, then you can’t miss the previews for The Martian, starring Matt Damon, which opens this weekend. I firmly believe that any book is typically better than its movie version, so I read the book by Andy Weir, on which the movie is based, in time to see it opening weekend. I loved the book and urge you to read it as well. As expected, it offers details that will be difficult to portray or are likely to be missed on the big screen.

Mark Watney is an astronaut who finds himself stranded on Mars alone after the rest of his team narrowly escapes the planet and an unexpectedly strong storm, abandoning Watney when they mistakenly believe him dead. To survive, he must draw on his unique combination of botany and engineering skills. Watney’s attitude and determination make him likable. His sense of humor makes him downright lovable and sometimes hilarious. I can totally see Matt Damon in this role and can’t wait to view it on the big screen.

Weir is a self-described nerd and he certainly fits the profile. A computer programmer and Doctor Who fan, his idea of a hobby is to study orbital dynamics. His nerdiness and true love of science come through as he drops plenty of his knowledge and years of research into the story of how Watney brilliantly and scientifically works his way through each life-threatening challenge Mars throws his way. Weir’s descriptions of the planet, its atmosphere, and the challenges it creates for a human trying to survive them are interesting and educational at the same time.

The math got to be a bit much for me—I’m more of a literature geek than a science/math type geek—but if you’re into math or science you’ll find plenty to love.  Weir provides a level of carefully researched detail in his descriptions of the chemical and biological processes required for Watney to survive (such as creating water and colonizing soil with bacteria to grow food) that is unusual if not unique. I also enjoyed Weir’s descriptions of NASA, its internal workings, thought processes and politics, and especially the interactions between NASA, Watney, and the other astronauts.

When you read the book, it’s quickly obvious that NASA would never waste space or energy transporting alcoholic beverages on such a journey, but I think Watney’s story deserves a toast and recommend Ruffino’s Il Ducale Toscana. Unlike the rust color of Mars, which Watney explains, this Tuscan wine is a deep, ruby red. Where The Martian is a sci-fi/thriller blend, Il Ducale Toscana is “an innovative blend of Sangiovese, Syrah, and Merlot.” It’s a wonderful, tasty combination and the perfect companion to Mark Watney in his Martian survival efforts.

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Magic Shifts by Ilona Andrews

Magicshifts1Magic Shifts, the latest in the Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews, is such an entertaining continuation of Kate and Curran’s exploits that I read it not once but twice—the first time just to see what happened next, and the second because I was sure I missed fun details in my haste to finish it the first round. Reading the final page was disappointing only because I have to wait a year to see where they go next. I hope Ilona Andrews is busily crafting the next installment.

In Magic Shifts, Kate and Curran are trying to be good neighbors and fit into their life in the suburbs. Kate has a new and extremely powerful enemy to fight, one whose magic is as old as hers, which presents unexpected repercussions for her. In confronting him, Kate runs head on into her own humanity and its limitations. As Dr. Dolittle repeatedly reminds Kate, she is not as she often acts, invincible, and she is forced to come to terms with that.

Roland’s presence is constant now despite Kate’s efforts to the contrary, and like his appearances in the previous book, his presence at this point seems benign, yet ominous, and provides for a bit of humor.  We also get to see where the lives of our other favorite players—Andrea and Raphael, Jim and Dali, Barabas, Christopher, Derek, and Julie— are going and get to know some others including George and Eduardo, Mahon and Martha, a bit better.  Kate and company have some serious and hilarious verbal and physical smack downs with family, neighbors, and friends as well as their enemies.

It was interesting to have a new foe, but I have to admit I missed Hugh a little. As always, I loved learning about the area of mythology and history related to this new threat.  Through Kate’s exploits, I’ve learned about Celtic, Hindu, and now Arabic mythology.

To accompany Kate’s latest endeavors, I would recommend Muriel’s Rioja Reserva. It’s a beautiful deep, ruby red in color, a little spicy and very flavorful. It’s also quite reasonably priced.

Enjoy, and happy reading!

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The Paying Guests and Montoya’s Pinot Noir

Paying Guests3In The Paying Guests, Sarah Waters takes us across the pond and back in time to a society where women’s roles were set and their choices limited. In post-war England, where so many men—brothers, fathers, husbands, friends—were lost, the women and society as a whole are struggling to adjust to a hard-won peace they somehow find disappointing.  While they are grateful for peace, the men who have returned are damaged, former soldiers can’t find work, and women can’t find husbands.

Ms. Waters succeeds in transporting her reader to the world in which her main character, Frances, struggles to keep the family home after the deaths of her brothers and father. She does this by making the difficult decision to take in boarders. In deference to their situation and consideration of her mother’s feelings, their neighbors refer to the boarders, Mr. and Mrs. Barber, as the “paying guests.”  They also pretend not to notice Frances’s damaged hands from the daily housework and labor she’s taken on since they could no longer afford to keep servants.

Though Frances was determined at first to maintain professional boundaries with the Barbers, loneliness and time wore those boundaries down until they crumbled under the weight of attraction and possibly love. Trapped and desperate, the lovers’ plans go horribly wrong, with devastating and irreversible consequences. Frances can’t escape her fear for their freedom or her guilt over what they’ve done. Emotions and turmoil not only tear at their relationship, but their physical health and even their sanity.  Warning—some of the sex scenes are quite graphic, as is a rather detailed account of a miscarriage. This book is definitely intended for adults.

Though the descriptions can run long, the plot is well-developed and the characters multi-dimensional. You feel compassion for them and somehow understand their actions even if you don’t agree with or like them much. It’s a long read, and therefore calls for a lighter and reasonably priced wine. I’d recommend the Montoya Pinot Noir.  You might want shoot for the multi-bottle discount, so that you have enough to accompany all 500+pages.

Enjoy, and happy reading!

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Whiplash is the perfect pairing for Phantom Instinct by Meg Gardiner

Phantom 1In Phantom Instinct the thrill ride starts on page 1 with mass murder that seems random, but quickly becomes personal for Harper Flynn. With her hopes pinned on a man who sees a threat where there is none, who can’t decipher between friend or foe, the ride is treacherous indeed for Harper and the people she loves most. This latest thriller by Ms. Gardiner offers true heroes—normal people who work daily to overcome their imperfections—and a team of heartless, highly intelligent, ruthless, and focused villains.

Harper and Aiden are each broken, working to heal and move forward. Harper overcame a selfish and drug-addicted mother and years in juvenile detention to make something of her life. Aiden demonstrates early on that he is willing to sacrifice all in the service others. This willingness left him damaged in ways that he could never have anticipated. They are supported by characters whose heroism becomes evident as the story unfolds: one who is willing to give her life for a girl she doesn’t know, and another who finds his courage when our heroine needs it most.

Ms. Gardiner’s tale starts at the top of a steep hill, then continues to build speed and momentum until, like a roller coaster, you know there’s a big drop coming–something truly scary and stomach twisting–but you can’t wait to get there. The end provides a twist so unexpected that I didn’t believe what I was reading (and re-read it just to be sure).

Phantom Instinct is an exciting, fast-paced read. Based on its breakneck pace and mind-bending plot twists, I’d recommend Whiplash red zinfandel to accompany it.

Enjoy, and happy reading!

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Can’t we talk about something more PLEASANT? A Memoir by Roz Chast

Can't we talk2My father passed away more than a decade ago, but my mother’s health is declining and that point—the one we all prefer not to think about—the day she can no longer care for herself, is approaching with scary speed, much like the headlights of a train or maybe a Mack truck. If you find yourself in a similar place or can catch a glimpse of it on the horizon, this memoir by Roz Chast is a must-read.

In Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? Ms. Chast addresses the difficult, heartbreaking and at times overwhelming, topic of caring for aging parents with intelligence, sympathy, and humor. A professional illustrator, Ms. Chast uses her own experiences to provide a road map for the rest of us who are on this journey with a loved one. No matter where we are in our journeys, she has illustrated it in an honest and comic fashion. Ms. Chast’s memoir is a quick read and well worth the time.

This subject requires something a little stronger than wine. If you like scotch, this would be a good time tap into your single blend. If, like me you’re not into scotch, I’d recommend a vodka martini.

Happy reading!

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Conundrum’s complex red is the perfect companion for Sorrow’s Anthem

Sorrow's Anthem 1In Sorrow’s Anthem, Lincoln Perry, a former Cleveland police officer turned PI, is determined to clear his childhood friend’s name after watching him die brutally at the hands of police officers. He soon finds himself embroiled in a conspiracy that reaches far beyond the death of his friend.

As Perry begins to unravel the threads of the events leading to his friend’s murder, he finds that they extend more than a decade into the past and far deeper into the Cleveland law enforcement community than he imagined. It becomes clear that proceeding could lead to his own death, but due to a sense of loyalty mixed with more than a little guilt, Perry can’t rest until his friend’s name is cleared.

These same emotions lead him to pursue this case with less caution than it deserves, causing him to knowingly walk into dangerous situations without proper preparation and backup. He knows this, acknowledges it, and does it anyway. The risks he takes as a result cost him dearly, and the truths he learns are, as is often the case, things he would rather not know.

In Sorrow’s Anthem, Michael Koryta has created a great crime thriller. Lincoln Perry is a likeable character despite his flaws. You can’t help but admire the depth of Perry’s loyalty to his friend and his old neighborhood. It’s a fast paced read that includes at least a couple of twists you won’t see coming, which is always a plus. It was my first ready by Koryta, but it won’t be my last!

This crime thriller pairs perfectly with Conundrum, a rich, complex, and mysterious red blend. Enjoy, and happy reading!

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Three Little Words by Ashley Rhodes-Courter

Three Little Words3If you’ve never had contact with the child welfare system, consider yourself lucky. My work takes me into that world on a daily basis, and while I’m familiar with the system’s failures, Ashley Rhodes-Courter‘s Memoir, Three Little Words,  provided me with a new perspective—that of the children I and so many others work to protect. Despite my years of interaction with this system, Ms. Rhodes-Courter’s memoir was both enlightening and frightening.

The system is broken. I think anyone who works within our child welfare system or has had any contact with it knows this. However, Ms. Rhodes-Courter’s memoir expanded for me the breadth and depth of its dysfunction. As a general rule, the adults who work on behalf of the children who come into the care of the State tell them little. Some are not allowed to talk about it, others choose not to out of a misguided attempt to protect the children from the truth. Ms. Rhodes-Courter reminds us that children are smarter than we think, that they see and hear more than we as adults give them credit for, and that keeping them in the dark regarding their own lives can be more damaging than giving them the truth they so desperately seek.

Further, like many children, the State failed Ms. Rhodes-Courter and her brother not just once, but many times on many levels, through multiple agencies and at least two states. The problem is systemic and widespread, which is largely due to our unwillingness to invest financially in the agencies and people who are tasked with removing, placing, and finding permanent homes for children whose parents are either unwilling or unable to care for them. And, as Ms. Rhodes-Courter points out, had the State assisted her mother financially to the same extent they were willing to finance the foster homes where she was placed, her mother may have been able to create some stability and fulfill her promise to her “Sunshine”–her repeated promise to take Ms. Rhodes-Courter from foster care and bring her home.

It was a volunteer, a court appointed special advocate, or CASA, who ultimately made the difference for Ms. Rhodes-Courter by advocating to move Ashley and her brother from an abusive foster home, fighting to return Ashley’s few prized possessions to her, pushing the system to put Ashley in a safe place and actively search for a permanent home for her. (*Spoiler Alert*) Her adoptive family never gave up on her, and in time, their love and support restored the trust that the system had shattered. Ms. Rhodes-Courter finally learned the meaning of “home”.

Though difficult to read at times because of its honesty, Ms. Rhodes-Courter’s story is truly inspirational and her resilience remarkable. In lieu of a wine recommendation, I’m asking that you consider donating the amount you would typically spend on a bottle of wine to your local CASA organization. You can find it by entering your zip code in the Find A CASA locator on the National CASA website: http://www.casaforchildren.org.

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