All I need to be entertained are cats within ear-scratching distance and a good book . . .OK, maybe that's not ALL I need, but it's a good start.

I love to read. And I love to get recommendations for books to read.

I started Cats and a Book to share the books I read with others. Some I love, some I don't, but you may love the ones I don't, so you're welcome to post your own comments and suggestions.

To make it easier to purchase books you may read about on the blog, I've linked to Amazon.com through The Cats and a Book Bookstore, which is located on the bottom of this page. Your purchases are fulfilled and handled through Amazon. To assure your privacy, Cats and a Book doesn't handle any of your payment or contact information.

Happy reading!

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Light Between Oceans, by M.L. Stedman

The Light Between Oceans, by M.L. Stedman, is the story of a dedicated lighthouse keeper and his wife caught in a heartbreaking deception.  Tom Sherbourne is a veteran who relishes the seclusion of the Janus Rock lighthouse.  He reveres the regularity of the light and thrives under the rigorous requirements of record-keeping and light maintenance.  When Tom marries Isabel, they plan to raise a family on the island.  Unfortunately, Isabel tends their babies’ graves as they lose their children by miscarriage or stillbirth. 

When a small boat washes up to Janus Rock with a dead man and a healthy baby, Isabel is smitten.  She rationalizes that a mother would never leave her baby and must not be alive, and that there would be no harm in caring for the child.  Tom worries that he is required to report this arrival and feels they should return the child and try to find the dead man’s family.  But Isabel can’t imagine parting with the child and convinces Tom to allow her to claim the child as their own, and bury the man on the island.    

As the story unfolds, Tom and Isabel’s decision has tragic consequences.  Both Tom and Isabel continue to find ways to justify the wrongness of their actions, but when baby Lucy’s birth mother discovers she is alive, what is best for the baby becomes unclear, and the deception around the burial of the dead man puts Tom in a dire situation. 

The Light Between Oceans is tragic and heartbreaking.  Stedman skillfully weaves a story that presents to readers a fine balance between right and wrong.  The Light Between Oceans was published by Scribner in 2012. 


Wednesday, February 19, 2014

And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini

And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini, is a story of betrayal, loss, love, sacrifice, and reconciliation.  Hosseini’s frontispiece is a quote from Jelaluddin Rumi from the 13th century, which well describes the complexity of the story, the decisions his characters face, and the circumstances in which they find themselves:
                Out beyond ideas
                of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
                there is a field.
                I’ll meet you there.
It is this meeting place that readers arrive at intervals in the novel, weighing the wrong and right, seeing the consequences play out in the lives of the characters, considering what would have happened “if,” mostly unable to condemn or praise anyone without reservation for their choices.  Their motivations were strong:  love, family pride, greed, honor, commitment.  As his character Nabi says, “ . . . I have come to see  . .. that one is well served by a degree of both humility and charity
when judging the inner workings of another person’s heart.” 

The story begins in the country in Afghanistan, as the young girl Pari is taken to her Uncle Nabi, who works for a wealthy family in Kabul.  Pari is too young to have many memories yet, and is given to Nabi to be raised by another couple as their own.  Pari’s brother, Abdullah, feels the loss keenly his entire life.  Intertwined with the stories of Pari, Abdullah, and Nabi, Hosseini introduces a plastic surgeon who came to Kabul in an effort to help the injured.  Using this doctor as a foil for Abdullah, Hosseini makes a sharp distinction between those who are in need of help and those who can. 

At every turn in the story, Hosseini does a masterful job making his characters’ bitter choices real to the reader.   Their excuses are ours.  Their reasons are ours.  And their emotions strike a familiar chord. 

And the Mountains Echoed was published by Penguin Books in 2013.  

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Best Books of 2013


The beginning of a new year finds me making lists of books for my “must read” list, which tends to grow rather than diminish even as I avidly read all year.  I also reflect on my favorites from the previous year—books that generated feelings or insights that stayed with me or books I simply found particularly entertaining.  It’s always difficult to pare them down to a small number, but my top five picks for books reviewed on this blog in 2013 are:

Inferno
In Inferno, by Dan Brown, Robert Langdon, Brown’s recurring hero, returns to solve a new nail-biter. A mad scientist, intent on saving the world from its own population explosion, has created a viral time bomb. Accompanied by a smart and pretty blonde, Langdon attempts to decode the clues left by the suicidal scientist while being chased by corrupt government officials and a virtual private army through the streets of Florence and the canals of Venice. His task is complicated by the fact that he awoke in a hospital in Florence with amnesia, having no memory of how he got there or why. The only thing the reader knows for sure is that Langdon is the good guy, as always, and the other characters Brown introduces could be playing for either side. In fact, Brown cleverly pulls the rug from under the reader more than once, with unexpected revelations that induce literary gymnastics and the desire to return and reread sections of the book so the reader can be “in on” the surprise, too.
  
Beautiful Ruins
Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter, tells the story of Pasquale, an innkeeper in the tiny oceanside town of Porto Vergogna, who inherited the property after the death of his father.  Pasquale aches to build the property into a resort, complete with a mountainside tennis court, which will attract famous and wealthy Americans to the tiny town and mostly nonexistent beach.  When a Hollywood starlet, Dee Moray, arrives under unusual circumstances, he falls in love with her during her short visit. Stitched between modern day and the early 1960s, Pasquale and Moray lead separate lives which are eventually reunited.   Both Pasquale and Dee learn to accept what’s possible and what isn’t—like building a tennis court on the side of a mountain or luring Richard Burton away from Liz Taylor (Dee’s long ago wish)—but are still able to  find enrichment in the families they built while away from each other. 

The Burgess Boys
The Burgess Boys, by Elizabeth Strout, is named for Jim and Bob Burgess, who together with their sister Susan, grew up in a small town in Maine.  The incident upon which the novel’s action is centered involves Zach, Susan’s son.  Zach is a loner, searching for approval, depressed, and somewhat aimless.  What Zach does feeds bigotry against Somalis in his community but simultaneously lays a foundation for understanding. Strout allows the reader to anguish along with the characters in the book, hearing “their side” of the conflict and gaining understanding of their actions.  The Burgess Boys invites readers to adjust their perceptions, without leading them to choose one perspective over another, just as the characters do in the novel.   

The Dog Stars
The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller, tells the story of a world ravaged by a flu virus.  Hig, the central character in the novel, is a pilot and the guardian of a small airport near Erie, Colorado.  This post-apocalyptic setting is marked by rising temperatures, depleted animal communities and species, roving bands of scavengers seeking provisions and weapons, and a highly contagious disease referred to as “the Blood.” Together with Bruce Bangley, a ruthless tactician with a mysterious past, Hig defends a “perimeter” around the airport.   Flying “the Beast”, a 1956 Cessna 182, he scouts for wildlife, watches for marauders, and occasionally stumbles on salvage. When a faint signal from an airport closer to Grand Junction reached him, Hig was determined to know whether civilization survived somewhere else. 


Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls
David Sedaris' most recent collection of stories and essays, Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls, is a quirky, honest, and hysterical collection of his work. While Sedaris admits he loves the attention of being on stage and reading from his work, he also reveals himself as a flawed character in the story of his life--flawed, but very also very funny, and some of those "flaws" may explain his unique approach to recording life.Sedaris doesn't limit himself to witty stories, but occasionally adds a touch of scathing social commentary--still funny, mind you--but clearly has an agenda of its own. Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls is an upbeat collection overall, and made even more enjoyable if readers have an opportunity to hear Sedaris read from his collection in person, either by audiobook or at a local appearance. 


Readers, what were your favorite books from 2013?  What are you planning to read in 2014?  Look for my 2014 reviews on www.catsandabook.blogspot.com soon!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Return: A Steve Dancy Tale, by James D. Best

The Return:  A Steve Dancy Tale, by James D. Best, is the latest installment in the Steve Dancy series, and finds our intrepid shopkeeper back on his home turf on the East Coast.  Far from the rough and tumble West, the setting for the three previous books, Dancy isn’t safe from treachery or gun play.  The reader can be assured The Return is as fast-paced and entertaining as the books leading up to Dancy’s latest adventure. 

Favorite characters like Jeff Sharp and Captain McAllen make return appearances, although both are a bit out of their element in New York City, which leads to a few lightly comical scenes.  The typically taciturn and assured Captain McAllen, for instance, finds the closed-in spaces and city crowds disconcerting, while Sharp gravitates toward the docks to uncover information by finding drinking partners.

 In The Return, Dancy and Sharp, along with their Leadville shop manager, Virginia Baker and local business owners, confront a protection racket in Leadville.  The three, along with Captain McAllen and his Pinkertons, banish the gang leader and travel to New York City to investigate a alleged plot to sabotage Edison’s electrification project.  With Dancy’s investment in Edison’s efforts, he is particularly interested in ensuring Edison’s success.  And, of course, the reader shouldn’t assume that any former Dancy nemesis is completely vanquished, even Dancy’s own mother. 


The Return is a lively, old-fashioned style Western—clever, entertaining, and full of period references to give it authenticity.  Best paces his stories so well readers will find it difficult to put down.  The Return was published in 2013 by Wheatmark.  

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon, by Alexander McCall Smith

For fans of Alexander McCall Smith, the latest installment in the adventures of Precious Ramotswe and the "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" was anxiously anticipated. Their reward is The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon, released this month by Pantheon Books.
In this episode, the tactfully named Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon suffers from a slander campaign, and its owner asks the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency for help in identifying the culprit. A local attorney approaches Mma Ramotswe to disprove a young man is the heir to an estate, and Precious’ husband, Rra Matekoni, is coaxed into taking a course on becoming a “modern” husband. The case workload proves a challenge to Mma Ramotswe, the owner and chief detective at the agency, without her trusted associate detective, Grace Makutsi, who has given birth to her first child and is on leave.
As is typical of Smith’s detective novels, Mma Ramotswe arrives at fair resolutions for her cases, although not without unusual twists, turns, and good humor. Fans of this series enjoy the books not only for their story lines, but for Smith’s care for the accuracy and development of the characters. Mma Ramotswe is kind, wise, and humble and in this book, readers will see a different side of the ne’er-do-well mechanic apprentice, Charlie.
The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon could be finished quickly, but readers may want to parcel it out, treat-like, until next time.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Kindred Beings: What Seventy-Three Chimpanzees Taught Me About Life, Love, and Connection, by Sheri Speede

Kindred Beings:  WhatSeventy-Three Chimpanzees Taught Me About Life, Love, and Connection, by Sheri Speede, is a story about Speede’s transformation from a local veterinarian to founder of the Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center in Cameroon, Africa.  Dr. Speede once practiced in Goodlettsville, Tennessee, prior to relocating to the west coast, where she was a co-founder of In Defense of Animals-Africa.  Visits to Cameroon sealed her commitment to saving chimpanzees  after witnessing how captivity affected three adults housed in cages outside a small hotel.  Later, Pepe, Becky, and Jacky would be the first three she and her team are able to relocate to the Rescue Center. 

Dr. Speede shares her struggles gathering resources and support, working within the cultural and political boundaries, and acquiring help, either volunteer or paid.  Skilled labor was extremely difficult to find in her remote location, so training was essential.  Resources were negotiated for or donated, and from time to time, chance brought people into her path who offered help.  As Dr. Speede introduces the animals to the reader, one can’t help but urge her along in her quest to create a safe haven for these mistreated, abused, and orphaned animals.

Dr. Speede shares how she builds trust with the animals, even those thought of as dangerous, by participating in mutual grooming and sharing treats.  She describes mischievous
Becky, who was not above “borrowing” items left in her reach that have to be bargained for to be returned.  She describes how Jacky, once thought to be insane, becomes the strong, wise leader of the group after he is acclimated to the Center.  She writes how friendships among animals previously separated by the bars of steel cages grew, and their joyful reunions and introductions to other animals.  Dr. Speede isn’t unrealistic in her portrayal of the chimpanzees.  She has no illusions about their strength and unpredictability.  Chimpanzees are not pets.  Her foundation provides animals an opportunity to be safe while educating the population against poaching and hunting. 

Kindred Beings is evidence of Dr. Speede’s commitment to positively affecting the lives of these animals and the community in which her sanctuary is home.  It’s a moving story, but it hasn’t ended yet.  It is ongoing in Cameroon, on the Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center sanctuary.  You can learn more about Dr. Speede’s work at http://www.ida-africa.org/sanagayong-rescue-center_214.html

Kindred Beings was published in 2013 by HarperOne.



Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller

The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller, tells the story of a world ravaged by a flu virus.  Hig, the central character in the novel, is a pilot and the guardian of a small airport near Erie, Colorado.  This post-apocalyptic setting is marked by rising temperatures, depleted animal communities and species, roving bands of scavengers seeking provisions and weapons, and a highly contagious disease referred to as “the Blood.”

Together with Bruce Bangley, a ruthless tactician with a mysterious past, Hig defends a “perimeter” around the airport.  He plants and maintains a garden.  He fishes and hunts, although fish are not as prevalent, deer are, so Hig is able to supply them with food.  Flying “the Beast”, a 1956 Cessna 182, he scouts for wildlife, watches for marauders, and occasionally stumbles on salvage he can take back to Bangley.  In the meantime, Bangley manages the weaponry and the defense of their installation. 

Hig reaches out to others as humans in need of contact, against Bangley’s counsel.  He visits the Mennonite families who suffer from “the Blood,” sharing his garden’s bounty and salvaged soft drinks.  When a faint signal from an airport closer to Grand Junction reached him, Hig was determined to know whether civilization survived somewhere else. 

The Dog Stars is written in a stream of consciousness style: poetic, narrative, emotional.  It is a compelling and gripping story that leaves the reader with a sense of hopeful resignation. 

The Dog Stars was published in 2012 by Vintage Books.  

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson with Veronica Chambers

Yes, Chef is the memoir of the winner of the 2010 Top Chef Masters competition, Marcus Samuelsson.  Written with Veronica Chambers, the book follows Samuelsson’s culinary trajectory to the ranks of Executive Chef, restaurateur, and James Beard Award winner. 

Readers may recall Samuelsson from the television program “Chopped” where he is often a judge on the cooking competition program.   Samuelsson’s demeanor—calm and measured—comes across in his memoir.  The reader doesn’t get the sense that he is exaggerating or overstating the facts or manipulating his readers’ emotions with maudlin stories of his growing up years. 

Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia and believed to be orphaned along with his sister when their mother died.  They were adopted by a Swedish couple and raised there, which imbued him with a rich sense of culinary experience.  Although his early exposure was to Swedish food, as he began training as a chef, his exposure to new food cultures and flavors extended throughout Europe and eventually to the United States.  As Samuelsson explores his birth heritage, he discovers the flavors of his native Ethiopia, along with an extended family he didn’t know existed. 

Samuelsson is forthright in sharing his experience as a chef of African descent in the kitchens of Europe and North America, allowing the reader to draw her or his own conclusions and experience their own emotional reaction to his treatment.  His focus is on food and cooking, so that unfair treatment, slurs, and outright bigotry are like annoying gnats to him, not nearly powerful enough to deter him from his ultimate goals. 

Yes, Chef is an enjoyable read.  Samuelsson is likable and intelligent, and readers can’t help but root for him as he reaches each milestone along his culinary journey. 


Yes, Chef was published in 2012 by Random House.   

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Burgess Boys, by Elizabeth Strout

The Burgess Boys, by Elizabeth Strout, is a novel for modern times.  Strout doesn’t sugar coat reality; she revels in it, showing the reader manipulation, fear, bigotry, and deception.  But Strout’s gift is her ability to make that which seems on the surface to be clear—clearly right or clearly wrong—as a much more complicated matter, affected by a myriad of influences, and interpreted through the eyes of others in different ways. 

The boys for whom the book is titled are Jim and Bob Burgess, who together with their sister Susan, grew up in a small town in Maine.  Their father was killed accidentally when the children were young and this event weighs heavily on Bob and Jim into their adulthood.  The incident upon which the novel’s action is centered involves Zach, Susan’s son.  Zach is a loner.  The reader gathers that he is searching for approval, is depressed, and somewhat aimless.  What Zach does feeds bigotry against Somalis in his community but simultaneously lays a foundation for understanding. 

Strout allows the reader to anguish along with the characters in the book, hearing “their side” of the conflict and gaining understanding of their actions.  Zach offends and frightens the Somali community, yet the reader is allowed to see him as a sympathetic character who claimed to not fully understand the impact of what he had done.  Susan is an often absentee mom who is disconnected from Zach, yet the reader sees her as the struggling and loving parent she is, raised by an overly critical mother.  A prominent Somali leader in the community is angry and fearful following Zach’s offense, yet readers know that he yearns for reconciliation and understanding, not revenge. 

The Burgess Boys invites readers to adjust their perceptions, without leading them to choose one perspective over another, just as the characters do in the novel.  And greater understanding is truly a noble objective in these modern times.

The Burgess Boys was published in 2013 by Random House. 


   

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen, by Susan Gilmore

Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen, by Susan Gilmore, is the story of Catherine Grace Cline, of Ringgold, Georgia.  Growing up with her sister Martha Anne, Catherine can’t wait to move to Atlanta on graduation from high school, to a big city, and away from the small town world.  Her animosity toward the town is clear.  As she tells her sister when a tornado threatened the town, “Martha Ann . . . if that twister hits this town, nobody’s even going to notice it’s gone.” 

The girls’ mother, Lena, drowned when they were small, so they were raised by their father, a third-generation protestant preacher.  But Catherine is also mentored by the next door neighbor, her mother’s friend, Gloria Jean Graves, who channels Lena’s independence and helps the girls learn about the mother—how beautiful she was, and how she could sing.  But Gloria is also a little too brash and colorful for Catherine to feel proud of her, and the story of the Mother’s Tea at school is particularly poignant. 

Upon graduation, Catherine leaves for Atlanta and finds a job in a large retail store.  She lives with an elderly lady and her maid, themselves in, what readers may feel is an uncomfortably stereotypical arrangement, until Catherine’s father dies suddenly.  Catherine’s return to Ringgold, and a visit to the local Dairy Queen she frequented growing up, reveals much more to Catherine about her family and her destiny than she had discovered in her beloved Atlanta. 


Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen was published in 2008 by a subsidiary of Random House.