Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Books Read in January 2019

Sometimes I Lie by Alice Feeney: My review here.

A Stranger in the House by Shari Lapena: Another riveting psychological thriller. These are the books that I love and hate. I love to be dragged into the midst of a totally implausible drama. It's pure thrill with a hefty dose of "Wow, this is really bad writing and this plot is absurd." Cheap thrill book, entirely forgettable but fun while it lasted.

Walking to Listen by Andrew Forsthoefel: Now this, this is a beautifully written book. Oh my goodness. Forsthoefel can make an image blossom. His words are pure poetry. I underlined his rich phrases and vivid descriptions because this is just WOW. Forsthoefel spoke at my daughter's college last year, and her enthusiasm prompted me to put this on my reading list. We also chose it as our January book club read. This is the author's journey across America at age 23. He walked to listen to people' stories and, by doing so, to find himself and his place in the world. He's a collector of people's stories, ones he loved and ones that greatly disturbed him. He listened without judgment, or at least without expressing judgment. He wrestled with hearing prejudice and hatred and wondering what to do with it; he basked in love stories. I loved this memoir. My book club was divided. Some members were irritated with "white male privilege" and "whiny millenials" but they only read one chapter of the book. If they had read more, I think they would have appreciated the author's viewpoint and experiences much more. Highly recommended.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones: Ahhhh, what a novel! This is so beautifully written, so heartbreaking, enraging, and ultimately hopeful. Celestial and Roy Jr. have a beautiful life together. They are young newlyweds, moving upwards in their careers, and just getting started in life. One night Celestial has a bad feeling—a premonition—that they should stay home; instead, they go on a trip that ends in Roy, an African-American man, getting arrested for a crime he did not commit. He ends up being sent to prison for a 12-year sentence, and, after a few agonizing years, Celestial moves on. The story is told through the voices of Celestial, Roy Jr., and Andre, Celesitial's childhood friend and, eventually, her lover. Each one has a strong, rich voice and a poignant story to tell. Each makes decisions that affect the others—flawed decisions, perhaps, but everything is done in kindness and with an eye to a hopeful future. This is just such a wonderful, realistic book. Highly recommended.

The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater. Subtitled "True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime that Changed Their Lives," this is a compassionate account of a case that came to national attention. Two teens from different parts of Oakland cross paths on the 57 bus one day. Sasha is white teen who identifies as agender, and Richard is a black teen who is trying extremely hard to raise his grades and not end up back in juvenile detention. But Richard, egged on by his friends, sets the tip of Sasha's skirt on fire. He thinks it will just smolder and quickly burn out, but instead the flame ignites the whole skirt, and Sasha is badly burned. Richard is charged with a hate crime. The book alternates between Sasha's story and Richard's story. Both are told with such insight and compassion as Slater investigates the complexities of their lives and the aftermath of their encounter. Highly recommended.

Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty: Nine people head to a mind and body health resort for a week of intense therapy. They have no idea what to expect, but they believe the promise that they will be different people when they emerge. Each person has a story, which Moriarty tells in vivid detail. Broken hearts, loneliness, lost dreams—they are all here to be healed in some way. The director of the resort has her own story and her own aspirations, and she has nine perfect candidates. I laughed. I smirked.  I marveled at Moriarty's ability to zoom in on her characters' inner thoughts and motivations. I laughed more and couldn't put down the book. Well, until the last third or so, and then I was pretty over the book. It got really, really silly and just totally fell apart for me. I'm a huge fan of Moriarty, so I can forgive the last part of the book, I guess. But this is definitely not my favorite.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Book Review: Sometimes I Lie

Sometimes I LieSometimes I Lie by Alice Feeney

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was a terrific psychological thriller except that 1) too many things happened; 2) I have no idea what happened; and 3) the whole Edward thing.

NO SPOILERS HERE. This is the story of Amber and Claire, who are engaged in a seriously dysfunctional love/hate relationship. And sorta Paul, and then also this total creep, Edward, that randomly appears and adds little to the story.

Should you read this book? I couldn't put it down. I thought about it when I wasn't reading it. And then I got to the end and said, "Huh?" So the question is: is the thrill of a totally engrossing, completely implausible novel worth that moment at the end when you want to throw a book across the room and yell, "What. the. heck?" with a snarl of contempt?

You decide. You've been there before, no doubt.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Book Review: Family Tree

Family TreeFamily Tree by Susan Wiggs

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sweet and sappy, just like the maple syrup that threads its way through the novel, and just the what I needed on a cold weekend in November. Likeable characters (SO important after the last book I started and threw across the room), a year-long coma, lots of delicious food, a sweet but predictable (and sometimes a little tiresome) love story, and a town in Vermont where I wish I could live. (OK, I'd really only like to live there for a year. But still.) Overall, just the kind of "beach" read that I needed to restore my faith in the comforting power of books.

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Monday, August 13, 2018

Book Review: All the Pretty Things

All the Pretty Things: The Story of a Southern Girl Who Went through Fire to Find Her Way HomeAll the Pretty Things: The Story of a Southern Girl Who Went through Fire to Find Her Way Home by Edie Wadsworth

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I used to follow author Edie Wadworth’s blog years ago. I was drawn to her quick wit and beautifully decorated home. To this reader, fellow homeschooling mama Edie Wadsworth was intimidatingly perfect: gorgeous, smart, wealthy, and so talented.

After reading her memoir, I’m blown away by the “real” Edie, or rather, what it took for Edie to travel the path from always-hungry little girl to the redeemed but still struggling adult. Her story (as well as her sister's and cousin's) is a tribute to how kids can rise above their circumstances. And rise she did.

Edie Wadsworth is a class act. She is positively loaded with grit and determination, with a healthy helping of honesty, grace, and kindness. She’s the real thing. A lot of reviewers criticize her adoration of her father. I get that—it is hard to imagine idolizing such a deadbeat dad. But the bonds between daughters and fathers are strong. We readers just don’t see her father as she did. We don’t quite get how charismatic he must have been. He just seems sad. The real hero in this story, of course, is Edie’s mom. She worked unbelievably hard to raise and support three kids on her own. Her memoir would be truly compelling, no doubt.

This isn’t exactly a beautifully written memoir, thus my rating of actually 3.5 (3 for writing, 4 for storytelling). It’s a little choppy and stumbles around a bit, but the story is powerful and you can’t help but want to high five Edie for rising out of the ashes.

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Thursday, August 9, 2018

Book Review: The Alice Network

The Alice NetworkThe Alice Network by Kate Quinn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Eve and Charlie: two women, a generation apart, both suffering from tremendous loss after World Wars— WWI for Eve, WWII for Charlie. The chapters alternate between the two stories, but they are connected early in the novel.

Eve was a spy during WWI, part of a real life group of women spies known as The Alice Network. These women, led by Louise de Bettignies, risked (and many lost) their lives for their country as they led double lives to uncover classified information. When we meet Eve, she is an angry alcoholic, nearly 30 years after her stint as a spy. She reveals her story to Charlie throughout the course of the book.

Charlie is a 20-year-old pregnant college drop-out. It’s 1947, just after WWII, and her parents fly her to Paris so she can get rid of her “Little Problem.” She ditches her mother, however, so she can search for her missing cousin, Rose, who disappeared in Nazi-occupied France during the war. Charlie’s only clue to Rose’s whereabouts is the name Evelyn Gardiner, which leads her to Eve.

Eve appears to be a brusque, unpleasant old woman, but Charlie needs her help in finding Rose. Charlie rekindles something in Eve: a desire for revenge. They set off together, with Eve’s driver, Finn, in search of their separate stories.

I loved this novel once I got into it (although that took a long time, so keep reading). The alternating narratives were a bit confusing at first, and I kept questioning Charlie’s story; but once I immersed myself in the novel, I got through it quickly. Charlie’s narrative wasn’t nearly as compelling as Eve’s—sometimes it was quite annoying—but it got much better in the second half of the novel. I ended up really loving Charlie’s story, too.

Eve’s story is incredible. I’d love to see the women of the Alice Network portrayed in a movie. These women were the epitome of undaunted courage. What amazing bravery! I am inspired to read more about the Queen of the Spies and her entourage.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Book Review: Educated

Educated: A MemoirEducated: A Memoir by Tara Westover

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Phew. What a memoir!

First, let me say that I read this book with a bit of trepidation because I am a homeschooling parent, and this book is widely described as being about a girl who was homeschooled by survivalist parents. As most reviews emphasize, however, Tara was certainly not offered a "normal" homeschooling experience. In an interview with NPR, she says "there was not a lot of school taking place. We had books, and occasionally we would be kind of sent to read them. But for example, I was the youngest child, and I never took an exam, or I never wrote an essay for my mother that she read or nothing like kind of getting everyone together and having anything like a lecture. So it was a lot more kind of if you wanted to read a book, you could, but you certainly weren't going to be made to do that."

I quickly realized, however, that this book has little to do with academic education, with whether Tara should have been sent to public school or not. This book is about Tara's education as a human being, as a part of the world outside of her family.

Tara's parents were paranoid survivalists who completely manipulated and controlled her world (and that of her siblings). She had no access to reading material other than Mormon texts and the Bible. No newspapers, no history books, no television. Whatever her parents told her, was her reality. She believed entirely that the government was coming for them, that the world was close to ending, that everyone besides her family was hellbound. She believed that she was dirty, dumb, and a whore. She believed that the medical community was a pit of vipers. She believed it was her duty to cater to her father's every whim and, later, to her brother's. She believed she was worthless.

And yet she had something inside of her, a spark of brilliance and determination that even her father's cruelty, her mother's denial, and her brother's brutality could not keep down. Tara is not just a survivor but a victor. She overcame a horrific childhood full of danger, of physical, and emotional abuse (though she does contend that she had happy moments) to earn a PhD from Harvard. Her real education, though, comes as she begins to see the world through a different lens than her father's. Her real education comes when she sheds her former self, piece by painful piece, to discover not just who Tara is, but who this world is, and who Tara is in the world.

In some ways this memoir reminded me of The Glass Castle, but it is not as beautifully written as Walls' memoir. Walls was more than a decade older than Westover when she wrote her amazing memoir, and I suspect Westover's memoir has more of a raw, open wound feeling because of her proximity to her childhood.

I left this novel feeling sad and disheartened because I know there are so many children in our country who are raised on hate and fear, and so many of them don't have the willpower that Tara had to separate herself from them. And the cycle continues.

Happy for Tara that she climbed out of the pit, and hopeful that she may inspire others to do the same.

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Thursday, April 26, 2018

Book Review: Good as Gone

Good as GoneGood as Gone by Amy Gentry

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book is basically every parent's nightmare: their 13-year-old daughter is kidnapped from their house in the middle of the night. I mean, why did I keep reading? I certainly would not have if I still had a 13-year-old daughter at home!

So Julie is kidnapped, and her younger sister, Jane, sees the whole thing happen. She's too terrified to scream or even move until three hours later, and her mother holds this against her. (The mother. Ugh, how I despised this mother!) Anyway, Julie disappears without a trace, and then eight years later, she shows up at their front door.

Did I mention how much I despised the mother? Unfortunately, the chapters alternate between her and, well, Julie. Sort of. The mother, Anna, is just cold.

Regardless of the horror of a 13-year-old being kidnapped and a cold-hearted mother, I kept reading. I mean, it is a novel of suspense, after all, and frankly, I needed to find out what happened. I kinda wish I hadn't finished it. It got kind of ridiculous at the end, and it also devolved into stuff I don't want to read about in such detail, even if this horribly does happen to real 13-year-olds. Just ugh.

So, yeah. II could have done without this book. Did I learn anything from it? Was I enlightened in any way? Was I entertained? Was I wowed by the writer's craft? Was I made a more sensitive person? Nah, nah, nah. It was just kind of horrifying.

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