The First 20 Minutes

Are you tired of all of the hype surrounding exercise? It seems like we are constantly bombarded with information regarding the best ways to exercise and how much time we really need to spend working out. Finally, a book that the average person can understand that explores actual research behind current trends in exercise. The First 20 Minutes by Gretchen Reynolds is great for everyone from couch potatoes to athletes.  For instance, it answers many questions that runners have.  Is it necessary to purchase those high dollar running shoes to avoid injuries or are those new “barefoot” running shoes the way to go? And, if I do go for a run or work out, are sports drinks the best way to stay hydrated and recover? If I am entering a race should I carbo load for optimal performance? For everyone from the occasional to the regular exerciser, a number of questions are answered as well. For example, just how much time do you need to spend exercising per week to start reaping health benefits? Do I really need to do all that stretching before and after I exercise to avoid injuries?  Is weight training valuable or should most of my time be spent on cardio? If I’m exercising why don’t I ever lose any weight? For those who are not currently motivated to work out, this book is for you also. It discusses many of the benefits of exercise not only for your body but also for your brain!

Defending Jacob

Defending Jacob is the third legal thriller by Dagger Award winner William Landay and it is well worth the read. In the picturesque town of Newton, Massachusetts, a well-to-do suburb of Boston, a murder has just been committed. Fourteen year old Ben Rifkin’s body is found in a popular park with three stab wounds to his chest. Assistant District Attorney Andy Barber takes the case in spite of a potential conflict of interest. His son Jacob attended the same school as Ben and is in the same grade. At first, the investigation points to a pedophile who lives near the park. Soon, however, based on physical evidence and comments on Facebook, Jacob becomes the primary suspect. Andy is taken off the case, and instead of prosecutor he is now helping to defend his own son. To do that he must face up to his own secrets that he has kept from his wife Laurie and his son, that he is descended from a line of murderers. He worries that the prosecutor may argue that Jacob has the “murder gene” because of his family history. Andy is convinced that his son is not possibly capable of committing such a horrific crime, although his actions at times speak differently. Laurie, on the other hand, seems to waver back and forth on Jacob’s  guilt or innocence. Each character is well developed and the family drama is just as compelling as the legal drama. Combine this with a couple of twists at the end, and it makes for a great read!

The Orphan Master’s Son

This political thriller by Adam Johnson deservedly gets starred reviews from BookList, Publishers Weekly, and Library Journal. The Orphan Master’s Son takes place in modern-day North Korea. The book follows the life of Pak Jun Do, from an orphanage, to a tunnel soldier, kidnapper, hero, starving prisoner, and impersonator.  I had difficulty putting this book down even though I knew there were most likely horrors waiting around the corner. It was like watching a train wreck about to happen but being unable to take your eyes off of it. Reading about some of the physical and mental torture, starving people, and other brutalities inflicted on individuals was hard to stomach. To give a further sense of living under a dictatorship, the book is interspersed with narration by the national radio station that spouts propaganda all day long. As people are starving and living in constant fear, the national broadcasts paint a rosy picture of North Korea while portraying western nations as villainous. Some of the propaganda is so darkly funny that I would almost catch myself  laughing at its absurdity. And of course the “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il is ever present, if not physically then always in thought. The reader gets a real sense of the fear that the North Korean constantly lives under, where one misspoken word from yourself, lie from another, or bad luck can spell doom for yourself and your family. Amidst all the tragedy, there are some very touching moments and the love story is truly heartwarming. Obviously, don’t pick up this book if you’re looking for a light, feel-good read, but if you want a book that is intense and thought provoking, that will keep you thinking long after you have finished reading it, put this on your to-read list for 2012.

The Greatest Story Ever Sold

If you enjoyed the documentary Super Size Me by Morgan Spurlock, then you’ll like his latest DVD, POM Wonderful Presents the Greatest Movie Ever Sold. Since fewer people are watching commercials these days, advertisers have had to get more creative in advertising their products. One of common techniques used is product placement in movies and television.  In this entertaining DVD Spurlock attempts to make a movie about product placement funded solely by companies using product placement in his movie!. It is a humorous, yet informative look at how advertising affects movies and TV without us even being aware of it much of the time. Spurlock takes the viewer through the entire process of making his movie:  the initial steps of trying to get companies as sponsors, consulting lawyers, meeting with corporate executives, creating promotional materials for his movie, etc. Along the way, he interviews a number of different people in the business to get their opinions on how/if movie makers are selling themselves out to advertisers. I found myself chuckling at many different blatant and often ridiculous product placements in the movie .Plus, Spurlock gives a great picture of the contractual obligations movie makers enter into when they sign on for product placement. For instance, Spurlock must now agree to stay in a certain hotel chain, drink only his sponsor’s drink on camera, do an interview on a specific airline, wear sponsors’ clothing, and even take a bath with a pony. Although the viewer gets the feeling Spurlock does not agree with this type of advertising, he remains fairly objective throughout and respectful to those he interviews and with whom he meets.

 

Kosher Chinese

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Jewish American Michael Levy recounts his time spent in Guiyang, China teaching ESL as a Peace Corp volunteer in Kosher Chinese. This is a humorous, yet often touching memoir of the many cultural differences between America and the “other billion” Chinese (those that live far from Beijing or Shanghai that are not usually portrayed in the media). Surprisingly, Levy’s Jewish status is advantageous in forming relationships with the students he teaches at Guizhou University, like when faculty members inform him that he will be leading the Guizhou University Jewish Friday Night English and Cooking Corner Club. There were many scenes in the book where I was laughing out loud, such as Michael’s first experience using a squat “toilet,” spontaneously joining in with strangers singing John Denver tunes, a neighbor who sings Chinese opera at 6:30 every single morning, and the highly inappropriate English names some Chinese students adopted in his classes. In between these humorous anecdotes, Levy is able to convey the culture of western China where many feel they are caught in between the socialism of Mao and capitalism, and between traditional Chinese culture and Western society. No where is this portrayed more fittingly in the book than a description of a park in Guiyang with a gigantic statue of Mao just steps away from a Wal Mart. This is a quick, fun read particularly for those interested in other cultures and what those cultures think of Americans.

Shock Wave by John Sandford

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Mega-chain store, PyeMart is coming to small town Butternut Falls, Minnesota. Apparently not everyone is happy about this development. Bombs start going off, the first one in PyeMart headquarters in Michigan and the second at the local PyeMart construction site in Butternut Falls, killing and injuring several people. Virgil, who works for the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, is sent to Butternut to help the local law enforcement and the ATF with the investigation. The plot is suspenseful and moves along at a rapid pace as Virgil attempts to solve the crime before more people are killed. Unfortunately for him, it seems that half the town is unhappy with PyeMart, including many local merchants, as well as trout fishermen who don’t want the Butternut River polluted. Finding out the exact motives of the bomber proves difficult until Virgil decides to use some unorthodox methods to attempt to narrow down the search for the bomber quickly. Not only is the plot compelling, but Virgil himself is an extremely likeable and believable character with a string of ex- wives, long hair, a fishing boat, and a wardrobe consisting of classic rock band tee shirts. Shock Wave is the 5th novel by John Sandford starring detective Virgil Flowers. Although it is helpful as far as some of the character development, it is not necessary to have read the previous books in the series.

In Search of the Rose Notes

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In Search of the Rose Notes by Emily Arsenault is a cold case mystery. The current year is 2006, and Nora has just been contacted by her old best friend Charlotte, to tell her that the body of their babysitter, Rose, who went missing when the girls where 11 years old in 1990, has just been found. Nora returns to her hometown after hearing this information and old memories are dredged up that Nora would rather forget. The story flashes between the present day, the months before and after Rose disappeared, and 1996, when the girls were in high school. Although the book is a mystery, it is not your typical whodunit. There is a focus on Nora, her relationship with Rose and Charlotte, and how Rose’s disappearance has affected Nora throughout her life. As the book continues, the reader gets the feeling that Nora somehow holds the key to figuring out what really happened to Rose. The question remains whether Nora is willing, as an adult, to put the pieces together or run from all of the questions like she did when she was a kid. This is a great book if you like psychological mysteries and/or coming of age stories.

Death of the Mantis

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Death of the Mantis: A Detective Kubu Mystery by Michael Stanley (authors Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip) is a mystery set in the Kalahari area of Botswana. An unpopular game ranger is found in the Kalahari dying of a severe head injury. He is surrounded by three Bushmen who appear to be trying to help him. The question is, were they helping him or were they his murderers? Detective “Kubu” Bengu is urged to help with the case by an old school friend, Khumanego, a Bushman himself, who believes the Bushmen will be railroaded even if they are truly innocent. The case quickly becomes more complicated as two more murders are committed. Not only is the culture and landscape of Botswana fascinating, but Kubu is a lovable character, somewhat reminiscent of Columbo. He seems rather lazy on the surface and more interested with having a good meal and some wine than anything else, but he is actually a competent detective. Michael Stanley has also written two previous books, A Carrion Death and The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu, both of which star detective Kubu.

Paper Covers Rock

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Paper Covers Rock is a new Young Adult novel by Jenny Hubbard. It has recently been named a finalist for the William C. Morris Award which honors first-time authors that write for teens. The setting of the book is an all boys’ boarding school on the east coast in 1982. It is narrated by Alex, a 17 year old boy who has just witnessed the drowning of one of his friends, Thomas. The reader is privy to all of Alex’s thoughts which he records in his journal that he keeps hidden behind a copy of Moby Dick in the school’s library. It is obvious from the first couple of pages that there is more to the drowning than meets the eye. Although the drowning has been ruled accidental, there is way more to the story than Alex and his friend Glenn are telling. The reader watches as Alex struggles with guilt and must decide whether to keep secrets and protect himself and Glenn or to confide in his teacher, Miss Dovecott who recognizes that Alex is withholding the truth. The secrets that Alex is keeping are gradually revealed in his journal over the course of the book. However, the reader is kept guessing up until the very end which direction Alex will choose to take. As an added bonus, the book is filled with original poetry that Alex writes in his journal which is quite good even aside from the rest of the book. If you enjoyed A Separate Peace by John Knowles give this book a try.

Ugly Christmas Sweater Party

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Are you stressed out and overworked from all of your Christmas shopping, baking, decorating, and other holiday activities? Bring the fun back into Christmas by checking out the hilarious Ugly Christmas Sweater Party Book by Brian Miller, Adam Paulson, and Kevin Wool. It will have you laughing all the way through and by the end you will be much more relaxed and jolly. The book is purported to be a “how-to” book on throwing an ugly Christmas sweater party. There are a few short chapters with party suggestions such as games, music, food and drinks, and awarding prizes. The majority of the “how-to” section is very tongue in cheek, and not intended to be serious suggestions. For instance, there is a particularly humorous section on how to pick out that perfect Christmas sweater. If you want to win the prize for the ugliest sweater, the authors suggest that your sweater must not only be ugly, but also engage the five senses. Some ways to do this are by adding 3D effects, bells or chimes, edible items, and other interactive items such as pinecones or reindeer fur. You could even add some vanilla extract or rub yourself with pine scented air fresheners! The real star of the book, however, is the number of pages of over-the-top ugly Christmas sweaters with hilarious titles and descriptions. It’s a short book, so if you still haven’t gotten enough, check out the authors’ website UglyChristmasSweaterParty.com to peruse more ugly Christmas sweaters.

Bite by Bite

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Bite by Bite: 100 Stylish Little Plates You Can Make for Any Party is the debut cookbook by Peter Callahan who has been in the catering business over 25 years and has catered for many well-known celebrities. Callahan’s cookbook is as much a feast for the eyes as it is for the stomach. Each appetizer recipe is beautifully presented with a full page color photograph. What makes this stand out from other cookbooks is the unique presentation of each appetizer. Most of the appetizers are miniature versions of common dishes, such as lasagna, pancakes, hot dogs, Caesar salad, and spaghetti and meatballs. Each appetizer is presented in an imaginative, visually stunning manner. The seemingly mundane dish of baked beans is presented in miniature bacon cups. Barbecue chicken is served on wooden skewers in a tray of wheatgrass. Lemonade is presented in hollowed out lemons with lemon candy sticks and straws. At the end of the book Callahan also has a chapter with appetizer menus for several different types of party themes such as “Untraditional Thanksgiving Dinner.” Each theme comes with helpful tips about planning and serving. No doubt if you had a party using these recipes and presentations, guests would be talking about your party for a long time to come! This cookbook however is probably best for experienced cooks. Many of the recipes are time and labor intensive and contain unusual ingredients. Although, even if you don’t cook a single appetizer from the book, it is thoroughly enjoyable to browse. Just don’t read it on an empty stomach!

My Thoughts Be Bloody by Nora Titone

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There are numerous books recounting Lincoln’s assassination at the hands of John Wilkes Booth, but My Thoughts Be Bloody by Nora Titone puts a whole new spin on it. Instead of focusing on the conspiracy itself or the manhunt after the tragic deed, Titone takes an in-depth look at John Wilkes Booth’s background and what could have possibly motivated him to assassinate a president. Titone’s premise is that Booth’s dysfunctional family heavily contributed to his motivation to murder Lincoln. John Wilkes and his siblings grew up as illegitimate children of Junius and Mary Ann Booth. Junius Brutus Booth was something of a genius and a famous actor, but also an alcoholic. John’s brother Edward, older by four years, became the most famous American actor of his generation. John Wilkes constantly lived in the shadow of his famous older brother and father as he attempted to become an actor himself. While inheriting the striking good looks of his father, John failed to inherit his talent for acting. He bumbles along from one stage performance to the next, seemingly in denial of his lack of talent. He becomes increasingly caught up in the South’s fate in the Civil War while tensions with his older brother also escalate. Titone presents a fascinating look into the psyche and family dynamics of Booth and uses the Booth family’s own words whenever possible to tell the story. Equally interesting are all the facts Titone presents about the life of actors during the 19th century.