Saturday, January 31, 2009

'Heyday' is a 'Rush' of a Tale

Review of HEYDAY (BBC Audiobooks 2007)
By guest blogger Star Lawrence

hor, Kurt Anderson; read by Charles Leggett

You think 1968 was a memorable year? How about 1848? HEYDAY is a sprawling epic of 1848-1849, starting with revolutionary riots in the streets of Paris and finally zeroing in on four unlikely friends as they crash through interesting times.

Ben Knowles is a refined Englishman on holiday with a friend in Paris. He encounters a wild-eyed girl dashing through the streets in a mob and in the melee (which involves a stab with the beak of a taxidermied penguin he is carrying) he gets separated from his friend and later sees the man under a pile of bodies shot by the French soldiers.

Bereft, Ben journeys to America to make a new start and on his first night sees a bewitching blond actress (and part-time prostitute) dining in his hotel. They meet later, naturally, and he also becomes friends with her brother Duff, a tortured soul who has basically tossed his moral compass at 22 and amidst babbling his rosary over and over, commits all sorts of poorly thought-out crimes. The fourth friend is Timothy Skaggs, who is older, a newspaper reporter, photographer, astronomer, wit and raconteur.

Spoilers will ensue if I explain more, but eventually, the four set off across the American continent, eventually ending up as gold panners in the hills around Sutter’s Mill (1848—Gold Rush—remember from school?).

Unfortunately, the French policeman whose brother was shot in the wake of the penguin beak stabbing, has a long memory and is a couple of thousand miles behind them, but coming up fast.

I will leave it there and you can fetch the 22 disks. The narrator Charles Leggett is very listenable, keeps the voices straight without weirding out, and makes HEYDAY as rousing an adventure as any TV show.

You just supply the pictures yourself. Simple.

Star Lawrence owns Health’s Ass, a health humor site, at Anyone out there want to print her audio reviews? She can be reached at

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Return or Renew Those Books--Promptly (Or Else)

Man, I know penalties for failing to return a library book on time can add up. But this lady should have just bitten the bullet and paid the fine.

This is what you get for trying to evade--the library cop! Remember that episode of Seinfeld, in which he hadn't returned TROPIC OF CANCER (or was it TROPIC OF CAPRICORN?) since high school? The woman in this case checked the book out only last April, but she never returned it and was apparently unreachable. Complications followed. The lesson to take away: renew or return your library books in a timely manner--and don't disappear and pretend nothing's happened if you fail to do so.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Psychedelic Sunrise, Singleton Hippie Art

(c) Singleton 2009SOLDA technicolor nightdraped in never seen before colors...Magic laughter,the new music,playing to our souls...And in the morning,this...a psychedelic sunrise...painted on a Universal sky11 by 11 collage on cardstock. Skyground is swirls of watercolors and markers, sunrise face markers and ink, cheeks are snippets of abandoned original work. Sunrays are collaged from prints of

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Savoring 'Three Cups of Tea'

Review of THREE CUPS OF TEA (Penguin Books 2007)
Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

Few books tell a story so inspiring in such a beautiful way that they simply leave me at a loss for words. This is one of them, but I will try to say a few words, anyway.

THREE CUPS OF TEA tells the true story of Greg Mortenson, a mountain climber whose life took a more-than-slightly interesting turn after he made a failed attempt to climb K2. Mortenson, who got separated from his fellow climbers on the way down, took a wrong turn and ended up in Korphe, a small Pakistani village, after spending an inhospitable night on the mountainside. While he recuperated in Korphe, Mortenson got to know the people and took an interest in them. When he saw that their children lacked schools and had to learn their lessons outside, with the barest minimum (to put it generously) of school supplies, Mortenson promised the village elder he would see that a school would be built there.

Mortenson kept his promise--after a massive letter-writing campaign that yielded one check, living a penurious existence (while saving up money for his venture on a nurse's salary in the Bay Area) and other persistent efforts. He eventually found financial backing from fellow mountaineer and wealthy entrepreneur Dr. Jean Hoerni. With the money to buy supplies and labor, Mortenson headed back to Korphe to build a school. Only to realize that before he could build the school, they'd have to build a bridge--across a chasm that separated Korphe from the materials Mortenson was bringing.

This is just one early (and, believe it or not, comparatively small) example of the many obstacles Mortenson faced in trying to build this and other schools in the remote villages of Pakistan and, later, Afghanistan. We follow Mortenson through all his early missteps, misfortunes (financially, romantically, personally, politically) and misadventures until he finally gets
(not necessarily in this order) the money, the girl, a job as head of the created-for-him Central Asia Institute and the respect of peers, politicians, Muslim clerics, Taliban leaders and citizens from all walks of life in Pakistan and Afghanistan. And he managed not only to build schools, but to address other infrastructure problems villagers faced. Mortenson's accomplishments and what he went through to achieve them are so stunning, they took my breath away. David Oliver Relin (who chronicled Mortenson's efforts) is a deft story-teller and the book reads like a well-plotted work of fiction.

Three observations: First, to say this story is inspirational is simply not saying enough. The story is nothing short of astonishing, amazing . . . again, these words seem trite given the magnitude of
Mortenson's accomplishments. At the risk of gushing (further, some might say), it's a real-life example of how one person, with persistence and fortitude, can truly make a difference.

Second, Mortenson may have been motivated by his love and concern for the children in the tiny villages of Central Asia, but as you'll see from the book, what he has achieved goes even farther. Through his efforts, Mortenson learned about the wonderful qualities of the Muslim people of that region, and he has served as a good will ambassador for Americans (something we could sorely use, there and in general).

Finally, the story shows how taking one wrong fork in the road can lead to the most amazing places. I say Mortenson took the "wrong fork." But was it wrong? Or was it written?

Whether due to fate or happenstance, I think if you read this book, you'll agree it turned out to be a wonderful thing.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Change, Singleton Hippie Art 2009

Obama for Peace(c) Singleton 2009"And there was a noise,a whisperin' the wind,and it grewand grewand grew...Until it could be heard...The Change...." Colored markers, pencils, sharpies and the belief that Change is and Love....

Saturday, January 17, 2009

So Many Books . . . Part Three (and Counting)

If you look on the Readers Advisor Online blog and scroll down a bit, you'll see a post with a mind-boggling list of "best books" of 2008. (I tried to get into a permalink for it; I couldn't.) I haven't checked each one (nor do I intend to), but I wonder who would have the time to do so and how much overlap (if any) there is between those lists.

I say this knowing that, while I'm not a pokey reader, I'm not nearly speedy enough to read 462 books in one year. Sarah Weinman, you have me beat there--and, I suspect, you always will.

So it's conceivable that someone out there can actually read all the books on those lists. But that person won't be me.

Right now, I have a list of TBR books (readers, you know what TBR means, right?) that I probably won't be able to finish in my lifetime. And people keep writing even more books. Further, those lists are based on highly subjective judgments. And many good books never make the cut. What's a reader (of average speed) to do?

All I can do is try to choose wisely and keep on reading. And, while I may not gulp my books down at record speed, I'd like to think I'm savoring them, thus getting more from the experience. What I lack in quantity will hopefully be offset by the quality of what I read.

How about you? How do you keep up with all the books you'd like to read? Are you going for quantity or quality in your reading experience? Do you think one must be sacrificed to get the other? Do you focus on one genre or do you like to sample a variety of books? (I tend to like variety, though I gravitate for many reasons toward crime fiction.)

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The English Homeless Wander About Engagingly in 'The Keys to the Street'

Review of THE KEYS TO THE STREET (Chivers Word for Word Audio Books 2000)
By guest blogger Star Lawrence

hor, Ruth Rendell; read by Simon Russell Beale

I guess Ruth Rendell is a pretty famous British mystery writer, but this is only my second "listen" by her. She has a way of sort of rambling, giving great descriptions you can lay out in your head, and tipping in neat little clues as she goes along. I am becoming a fan.

In this one, we follow a nice young woman and dog lover (big with me) named Mary Jago, who is homeless herself because she has left her overbearing boyfriend because, among other things, he was disparaging about her having donated bone marrow to a stranger. She doesn't take to the streets, though, because for one thing she has a cool job (you'll see) and for another, she has a long-term housesitting gig, complete with a wonderful little dog named (sounded like) Gooshi.

Gooshi leads to Bean, the dog walker and former amanuensis to an S-M freak (see how Rendell sneaks in interesting little things you'd hardly expect from a staid British writer?). Bean is quite the schemer and is always out and about in the lovingly described squares, parks and private gardens around Mary's new abode—and where a murderer lurks, impaling the homeless on the pointy fences that seem to surround every house. Nice/nasty . . . that's how Rendell likes it.

Into this mix comes the recipient of the bone marrow Mary donated—a mysterious, pale, frail sort—and an oafish, crack-smoking thug named Hob.

Hey—wait—back up the CD . . . Hob knows the recipient? How can that be?

The reader, Simon Russell Beale, speaks in funny little bursts that suit the story.

Anyhow, you will have a fine time hanging out in these lush environs and trying to figure out how serial murder works in England.

I know I did.

Star Lawrence owns the health humor blog, Health's Ass, at, now available for the Kindle. She can be reached at

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

'The Prince of Bagram Prison': A Time-Shifting Tale of Intrigue

Review of THE PRINCE OF BAGRAM PRISON (Random House Trade Paperbacks 2008)
Alex Carr

After reading Alex Carr's first novel (at least, the first under that name), AN ACCIDENTAL AMERICAN, I was anxious to get my hands on her latest, THE PRINCE OF BAGRAM PRISON. Feeling slight trepidation that the first amazing novel written under that pseudonym might be a hard act to top, I nevertheless got hold of a copy, as soon as I could.

I'm happy to say that this book only deepened my respect for Carr and increased my devotion to her work.

This isn't to say that
THE PRINCE OF BAGRAM PRISON is a novel that everyone will embrace. As in her previous book, Carr engages in a good deal of narrative time shifting. And, unlike AN ACCIDENTAL AMERICAN, in which different people tended to show up at different times, the time shifts in this book tend to involve the same people throughout--so it's easy to get confused about what year it is and where you are exactly when the shifts take place. But if you pay attention, the effort will pay off.

Like her previous book, Carr is dealing in the shadowy world of espionage--this time, though, she focuses on the post-9/11 world (flashing back, now and then, to the final throes of the Vietnam War). We meet Kat Caldwell, an Army intelligence reservist, who's called away from her teaching post at a Virginia military college to help locate a young boy--a CIA informant--who's disappeared. Kat is enlisted to aid a not-so-nice (to really understate the matter) intelligence operative
in this quest, because she grew to know the young man while interrogating him at Bagram Prison.

The meaning of the book's title and all the other details are best discovered in the reading. So I'll just say this: Carr's writing in this book is as evocative and insightful as her previous effort. Her characters are complex and (depending on who we're talking about) sad, endearing, disgusting, pathetic, upright or amoral--often times, a combination of these traits. The plot, though complex and hard to follow at first, is constructed painstakingly. And, even if you lose the narrative thread now and then, the sheer beauty of the prose more than makes up for it.

And, as you draw nearer to the conclusion, a big payoff awaits, in terms of the story's building suspense (which kept me turning the pages late into the night) and satisfying resolution--at least, with respect to one character. For another, things seem less resolved than to be just simmering down. Carr apparently likes a little ambiguity in her story endings. When we're talking about the unsettling realm of espionage, that does seem appropriate.

Readers of the first Alex Carr book will recognize one major character from that story and a passing reference to a minor one in this book.

As in the first book, Carr writes a moving epilogue in this one, in which she talks about her past and how it shaped the creation of one of the characters.

Now, having finished both Alex Carr novels, I guess I have to check out her work as Jenny Siler. Without trepidation or hesitation.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Make Up Your Own Escape from Cruel Reality with 'Scarecrow '

Review of SCARECROW (Macmillan Audio 2004)
By guest blogger Star Lawrence

hor, Matthew Reilly; read by Scott Sowers

Who can afford the movies? If you like big "whammies" (what moviefolk call explosions and crazy stunt gags) go to the library and get the CD version of SCARECROW, by Matthew Reilly. This is a series, I take it, though this was my first outing with this crazy Marine with scars vertically across both eyes making him look like a . . . Scarecrow.

The books starts out over-the-top so you know what you're in for—and then amps it up and up and up, until I was jumping around my bed, scaring my animals, and yelling, "Nuh-uh!!" and "Go, go."

In this one, Scarecrow is on a hit-list of people evil financiers (we can relate to that as the new enemy, right?) want taken out by some bounty hunters, one of whom is called The Black Knight. Turns out the Black Knight . . . well, I won't spoil it for you . . . let's just say, he's quite a character, too.

Scarecrow and his merry crew get into totally, completely, and utterly unbelievable jams and zip out the other side. Let me just mention a few tantalizing buzzwords—missiles, sharks, guillotine, sinking super tanker, pistol versus fighter plane, afterburner as torture device, and my favorite—Jeep catapulted off an aircraft carrier. If the latter ever comes up in your life—here's a hint—jump out before it hits the water.

Scott Sowers is a good, solid reader, nothing fancy, but he doesn't get in the way of the action, either.

You may stop reading my reviews, but sue me, my tastes are eclectic. Some days, English comedy of manners, the next, SCARECROW! How come these guys can get shot, burned, bitten, shattered and can make do with a Tylenol?

You mean it's just fiction?


Star Lawrence owns the health humor blog Health's Ass, now available for Kindle. Go to She can be reached at

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Online Book Swapping

Now here's a cool concept--swapping books online. As a club member of PaperBack Swap, you can not only trade paperback books, but hardcovers, audiobooks, textbooks and more.

Of course, if you have an excess of old books (like, um, moi), you can always donate them to groups like The Book Thing of Baltimore or, if they're valuable, sell them to used bookstores like the ones in this organization.

And when it comes to borrowing, don't forget about your local library.

PS--This message brought to you by a Master of Library Science who loves to lurk in used bookstores.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Moon in her Arms, Singleton Hippie Art 2009

(c) Singleton 2009SOLDShe wooed him,cooed him,reached out to himwith long ballet fingers,butterflies to his latenight soul...And he went to her,basked in her warmth...and found himself at home....At the wrong time,in the wrong place ,in her armsandAccidently in peace...11 by 11 on mat board. Food coloring and shaving cream, colored markers, pens, and pencils. Watercolors. Peace and Love,

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Da Vinci Code Redux

In honor of the late Donald Westlake, a version of the prologue to THE DA VINCI CODE as Westlake might have written it (or a good editor might have revised it).

When it comes to writing, less really is more.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

'The Whiskey Rebels' is a Financial Bodice-Ripper, Violent and Funny

Review of THE WHISKEY REBELS (Brilliance Audio on CD 2008)
By guest blogger Star Lawrence

Author, David Liss; read by Christopher Lane

Ah, the women circa 1789 are comely and the taverns inviting until someone asks you to pay the tab, but this is just the backdrop for a new nation trying to establish a financial system. THE WHISKEY REBELS casts Alexander Hamilton as a crafty man, weak in flesh and strong in financial manipulation, who eclipses saintly "progressive" Thomas Jefferson and the remote and sore-mouthed General Washington.

But the founding dads are not even the stars of the story. This rollicking tale is told in first-person sections by Captain Ethan Saunders, a spy for Washington during the revolution, now disgraced as a traitor, and Joan Maycott, a feisty housewife who is duped into going to the frontier (then Pittsburgh) and being set on a course of revenge aimed at wiping out baby country's financial system.

I won't spoil it for you. You already know the financial system survived to be wiped out two months ago. I did like Captain Saunders, who is quite the ironical ne'er-do-well, who at one point is approached by a financier's "ruffian" and advised that the financier "requests you 'eff' yourself." So polite. This made me want my own ruffian. Know of anyone?

Christopher Lane is one of my favorite readers. He differentiates the voices without being overwrought.

I love hearing about olden times, accurate or not, so long as I don't have to smell the people. David Liss takes special pains to describe many combinations of body odor. For this we can be most grateful. I will insist my ruffian bathe.

Star Lawrence owns the health humor site Health’s Ass at She can be reached at

Friday, January 2, 2009

Someone painted the Sun, Singleton Hippie Art

(C) Singleton 2008 "She pouted.Sighed.Rolled over in the skyand wallowedin the blueness.Someone painted the Sun,and the cloudswere all pointing at her,as they whispered by,dressed in cotton candy colors.I stood on the ground andwatched asshe fretted,started to cry....Someone grafittied the Sunand she didn't know why...Her tears ran blue andpinkand green...psychedelic swirlsof neon rain..."They've

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