Saturday, December 20, 2014

Book Review: This Dark Road to Mercy

We read, loved,  and discussed Wiley Cash's debut novel A Land More Kind Than Home last year for book club, so I was excited for a chance to read his latest book, This Dark Road to Mercy. First of all, I love the titles to his novels. And I love the name Wiley Cash and how I know it's pronounced here in East TN (Wah-lee). But I love the books, too.

Easter Quillby is the main voice in this novel, although various chapters are narrated by other characters, as well. She's a 12-year-old in foster care as the novel opens. Her mother has just died of a drug overdose, leaving her and her little sister to the system. And then the deadbeat Dad shows up, determined to give his girls a home.

Wade is a former minor league baseball player who is also mixed up in a multimillion dollar robbery. He steals his girls from their foster home in the middle of the night and heads out on the road. He has no idea how to be a father to two girls who don't trust him at all, but somehow he figures it out. He needs to protect them—that much he knows. But he is up against a lot more than he figured. Two men are in hot pursuit of Wade and the girls: an evil bounty hunter and a gentle court-appointed guardian.

Easter is a tough, smart girl who is trying to figure out what all these crazy adults are doing. She's much more than a pawn in the system, though. Her Dad really loves and wants her, her court-appointed guardian is desperate to find her, and her grandparents in Alaska, whom she's never met, are waiting for her. Does what Easter wants matter?

Wiley Cash is a great storyteller. His characters have an almost immediate depth, and I like knowing characters right away. This is a fast-paced novel, one that is hard to put down; I think I read it in a few hours. And now I will look forward to Cash's next novel. He is definitely a Southern voice to follow.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Book Review: The Way Life Should Be

Christina Baker Kline has a lot of great stories brewing around in her brain. She's published two other novels just this year  (Sweetwater, Desire Lines)  as well as the best-seller Orphan Train. And I've got to say: I'm impressed. These aren't literary masterpieces, but they are darned enjoyable reads.

The Way Life Should Be follows a well-used storyline: girl (Angela) and guy meet via internet. Girl loses job and on a whim, moves to guy's state. Guy ends up being a jerk. Girl ultimately lives happily ever after. It's been done before; it will be done again and again. But Kline isn't really about the plot—she's about insights, the I-know-that-feeling-exactly moments and the moments of pure poetry. Her characters are incredibly vibrant—they are people we know without being stereotypical. She is not only a close observer of how we humans behave, but she really captures those thoughts we thought no one else had. I love that.

A bonus in this novel: lots of recipes. I know: it sounds corny. But part of the story line is that Angela learned to cook from her Italian grandmother, and I am always happy to read about fabulous food being cooked and eaten among friends. I've bookmarked the "Pasta with White Bolognese" sauce to try on of these days.

Ultimately, this is a novel about finding one's place in adulthood—where do we fit in? Who is our family? When does my real life actually start? This is a quick, happy, familiar (in a good kind of way) read—perfect for those times you don't want to invest in something heavy. And—there's always pasta and pound cake.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Book Review: Gone Girl

We had Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl on our Book Club list to read in spring, but when we saw that a movie was coming on this fall, we decided to read it now and then go see the movie together.


(And that goes for the movie and the book)

First of all, the book itself was completely captivating. I could not stop reading it, even when I was kinda flinching at the language and the amount of graphic sex. We did but out a book club warning for some of our more sensitive members, who opted out of reading this one.

I was completely surprised by the plot's twists and turns. Flynn is an astounding writer. This is the kind of book that leaves me utterly impressed, wondering, "How did Flynn do this?"

The plot seems obvious at first: Nick, the husband, an obvious jerk, kills his smart, beautiful wife Amy. But this is a psychological thriller (not my usual genre, but why??), and so we know there are going to be layers to the story. But I didn't try to guess the layers, and I let myself be completely swept up in the story. It was a wild ride.

And that's about all I can say about the book without revealing anything. It's amazing.

And the movie did not disappoint. The movie wasn't nearly as graphic as the book, although there was plenty to be disturbed about. In other words, it totally deserves its R rating. Usually I like to wait a year until I see the movie version of a book so that I forget most of the details. But we all felt like the movie, while omitting a lot of background information, was quite true to the book. Nothing major was changed. Some of us said that they just didn't picture the characters looking like the actors, but besides that, we all agreed it was excellent—though disturbing.

I'm thinking about checking out Gillian Flynn's other novels, although I may need to read some fluffy books before I do. She is not for the faint-at-heart, but she is soooo worth it.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Book Review: The Pearl That Broke Its Shell

I have to admit: I came this close to giving up on this book by Nadia Hashimi after about 50 pages. I  could not follow what was going on, couldn't engage with the characters. And just as I was about to call it quits, everything started clicking. And I'm glad I didn't give up.

The novel traces the lives of two women, Rahima and Shakima, in Afghanistan nearly a century apart. The premise of the story is that both women lived as boys for a time during their youth, and thus they experienced the amazing freedom that comes with being a boy vs. the oppressive life of living as a woman.

Rahima is the contemporary story. She is the third in a family of five girls. Because her father is a drug addict and a soldier, the family desperately needs a son to be able to do all the things women are not allowed to do. When Rahima is nine, she becomes a bacha posh, which is apparently a bizarre Afghan custom that allows young girls (in sonless families) to dress as boys and navigate the world as such until they reach puberty.

Rahima experiences this incredible freedom for several years: going to school, trading in the marketplace, playing in the streets with the boys, even being treated as a son in the home. But then at age 13, her father makes a deal with the local warlord and gives his three oldest daughters, ages 13-15, in marriage to him and his relatives. Rahima becomes the fourth wife of this abusive warlord who is 30 or 40 years her senior. Needless to say, her life is filled with nothing but horror in a home ruled by cruelty, fear and jealousy.

Rahima's one saving grace is her unmarried aunt, who, from her earliest memories, has told her stories of her great-great-great grandmother, Shakima. These stories carry Rahima through her childhood and give her hope for her future. Shakima's childhood was made up of one tragedy after another. She dumped hot oil on her face as a toddler, scarring her horribly. By the time she was twelve, her beloved mother and siblings had all died of cholera, leaving her and her brokenhearted father to maintain the farm and home. Shakima becomes her father's son, working in the fields as hard as any man. When he dies, Shakima is forced to live with her extended family, who hate her. Ultimately, Shakima becomes a palace guard for the king's harem: a job that requires she dress as a man.

I think what struck me the most in this novel is how little the life of women changed in the hundred years separating Shakima and Rahima. It's really incomprehensible to me. As I consider my own great-great-grandmother, I realize that, although I certainly have more freedom and different expectations as a woman than she did then, she had more rights as a woman than Shakima and Rahima could ever imagine. There really isn't anything happy about this novel, although one does come away with hope for both Rahima and Shakima and intense gratefulness for living in a country that doesn't (as a whole) delight in the oppression of women.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Book Reviews: Sweet Water and Desire Lines

I was excited to have the opportunity to review two new novels by Christina Baker Kline, author of Orphan Train. The first one, Sweetwater, I must admit I approached skeptically because the setting of the novel is just down the road from me in Sweetwater, Tennesseee. Kline was born in England, after all, and grew up in Maine and the "American South." Who says "American South"? Surely not anyone who knows anything about the South.

I was prepared for a stereotypical portrait of a small town in East Tennessee, where everyone is a dumb redneck or a suppressed genius who dreams of getting out of the small town but gets pregnant instead. I was pleasantly surprised to encounter almost none of the silliness that often accompanies contemporary novels set in the South. (There was once scene, early on, in which the main character hears singing from local churches as she drives down Interstate 81 on a Sunday morning. Nope. I've been on I-81 a hundred times, and there is no singing to be heard above the traffic from cute little churches along the way. That was a romanticism I could have done without.)

Sweet Water is the story of Cassie, a sculptor in New York City, who inherits the family homestead in Sweetwater, TN, upon her grandfather's death. Cassie knows almost nothing about this side of the family; her mother died in an accident caused by this grandfather when Cassie was a little girl, and bad feelings abound. But Cassie is at that stage in life when she needs to make major changes or suffer a bland and directionless life, so she moves from NYC to rural Tennessee.

Interspersed with Cassie's story is that of her maternal grandmother, whose chapters reveal a woman trapped in a miserable marriage to Cassie's philandering grandfather. There are all kinds of family secrets surrounding the death of Cassie's mother and the events that led up to the accident, and Cassie is determined to find them. First, she has to crack her grandmother's tough shell.

Somehow Sweet Water really resonated with me. Part of it was Cassie's determination to find her place in her extended family. Having a large extended family of which I've never been a part, I understand that desire to be included—to know the secrets and the back stories that everyone else knows so well. I liked that Cassie and her grandmother managed to break through the barriers and finally share some truths. And again, I appreciated Kline's treatment of rural Tennessee. It was neither overly sentimental, stereotypical, nor critical.

I just finished Kline's Desire Lines, which I read in about a day because I couldn't put it down. The story centers on the mysterious disappearance of Jennifer, the perfect girl-next-door who disappeared the night of her high school graduation. Ten years later, her best friend, Kathryn, comes back home to Bangor, Maine, when her live unravels. She's given the task of writing an article about Jennifer's disappearance, and, in doing so, Kathryn has to come to terms with how little she knew about Jennifer and how little she knows about herself.

Again, Kline touches on familiar areas to me. And again, a lot of that has to do with back stories and reflecting upon what was really going on way back then. You know that feeling, when peering back into one's life, that you really had no idea what all was beneath the veneer? That so much else was going on, and you wonder how you could have been so oblivious—or, sometimes, so intentionally ignorant?

Sweet Water and Desire Lines are both fantastic books for when you need a fast read that sucks you in and keeps you captivated. Neither books is a literary masterpiece. They both have some holes that leave you kinda wondering what just happened. But I'm OK with that. Kline is an excellent writer. Her dialogue is great and her whole exploration of the story-beneath-the-story really appealed to me.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Book Review: Riding the Bus with My Sister

This was our book club pick for June, selected by me because I absolutely adored Rachel Simon's Story of Beautiful Girl. Riding the Bus with My Sister is Simon's story of a year she spent reconnecting with her sister, a mentally challenged woman who spends her days, well,  riding the bus.

As the story opens, Simon is moved by guilt and obligation to visit her sister Beth, who lives alone in mid-sized town in Pennsylvania, a couple hours away from Simon. They are both in their late 30s and have left behind a difficult and at times dangerous childhood. Their parents, though divorced, clung to one family mantra: Beth will never be institutionalized.

Simon and her siblings see Beth's life as wasteful and depressing. All day, every day, Beth hops on one bus after another, riding around the city and, as they see it, annoying people. They want her to get a job or volunteer—to do something. But riding the buses is Beth's world, and when Rachel visits her sister, she is issued a challenge: ride the bus with Beth for one year.

At first Rachel, a dedicated workaholic, balks: she doesn't have time for this nonsense. But something nudges her to say yes, and so she heads over to Beth's one day each month to spend 12 hours riding the buses. And in the course of the year, Rachel discovers who her sister really is—and finds out a lot about herself, as well.

The story alternates between vignettes of the bus drivers—men and women whom Beth has carefully selected as the most caring, sensitive people; flashbacks from Beth and Rachel's tumultuous childhood; Rachel's own adult life; and Rachel's discovery of who Beth really is.

It's all done beautifully and with great honesty. I loved every part of this book, although I had to devour it quickly in order to have it read in time for our book club discussion. This was a fantastic choice for our book club, although our discussion was rather limited as we conducted it in a noisy restaurant! I'm going to spend this evening watching the Hallmark Hall of Fame movie based on the book—and then I'm hoping I can find more books written by Rachel Simon!

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Sunday Salon: Mid-Year Review

Books Read and Reviewed January—June

Books Read But Not Yet Reviewed
The Graveyard Book (Neil Gaiman)
The Ocean at the End of the Lane (Neil Gaiman)
Blessings (Anna Quindlen)
Skylight Confessions (Alice Hoffman)

Best Books So Far
Sadly, nothing so far has been knock-my-socks-off amazing. But I must say I really loved the last four books—the ones I haven't yet reviewed and Lee Smith's Last Girls a whole lot. Well, and of course, The Book Thief—but that is a multiple re-read.

Book Club Books
Labor Day (Joyce Maynard)--(January)
Winter Wheat (February)
Girls of Atomic City (Denise Kiernan)-- (March)
Jane Eyre (April)
And...I think we missed a month. I didn't re-read Winter Wheat or Jane Eyre, but I did bring a paper on Jane Eyre that I had written in college!

Movies From Books
Labor Day (book club outing)
The Fault in Our Stars (I actually haven't read the book, but I've been assured it's close)
The Book Thief (Watched with my World Lit class. A good movie but very disappointing after reading the book)
Great Expectations (loved the Masterpiece Classic on Netflix. Really fabulous.)

Added to TBR List
  1. 41 False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers by Janet Malcolm
    Alena by Rachel Pastan  
  2. Americanah by Chimanda Adichie
  3. The Baker's Daughter by Sarah McCoy   
  4. Bellman & Black: A Ghost Story by Diane Setterfield
  5. Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me by Karen Swallow Prior
  6. The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez 
  7. China Dolls by Lisa See
  8. Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee
  9. Ecology of a Cracker Childhood (The World As Home) by Janisse Ray
  10. Glow by Jessica Maria Tuccelli
  11.  The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
  12. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
  13. The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
  14. Guests on Earth  by Lee Smith 
  15. The House at Tyneford by Natasha Solomons 
  16. In My Father's Country by Saima Wahab 
  17. The Invention of Wings by  Sue Monk Kidd 
  18. The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman
  19.  The Light in the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian 
  20. Long Man by Amy Greene 
  21. The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri. 
  22. The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton 
  23. Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee by Marja Mills
  24. The Orchid House by Lucinda Riley
  25. The Plague of Doves  by Louise Erdrich
  26. A Prayer Journal by Flannery O'Connor 
  27. Radiance of Tomorrow by Ishmael Beah 
  28. The Rest of the Story by Phan Thi Kim Phuc
  29. Snow by Orhan Pamuk 
  30. Still Life with Bread Crumbs by Anna Quindlen
  31. Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis by Lauren F. Winner     
  32. A Thousand Mornings: Poems by Mary Oliver 
  33. The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan 
 Yeah, that kind of makes me dizzy. Why have I added so many books already this year, and read so few? 

I just noticed that on my mid-year post from 2013, I posted all kind of literary pictures from our trip to Paris. No such excitement this year! But I am most excited about read Amy Greene's The Long Man.

And that's it so far for 2014!

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Book Review: The Last Summer (of You and Me)

Author Ann Brashares is the creator of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, that fabulously fluffy teen series about a pair of jeans circulated among four best friends that does wonderful things for all of them. The Last Summer (of You and Me) is her first novel for adults, and it is definitely a beach read, bordering on a fluffy teen read and definitely a coming-of-age story.

The story mostly takes place on Fire Island (off the Northeast coast somewhere), and I'm always a little envious of great island stories—families who take the ferry over to some island every summer to their fabulous beach house. I mean, I live in Tennessee, so of course this all sounds terribly exotic and dramatic. And beachy. Who are these people?

Still, because I grew up in New York and had lots of friends with summer cottages on the lake, I get it, at a certain level. Anyway, the story is about next-door-neighbors on the island: two sisters and the boy-next-door. It's not what you think: the sisters don't fight over the boy. It's a more complicated relationship among the three, and I think it all made sense in the end. I think. It wasn't all terribly clear, and I was really more drawn into the story of Alice and Paul and not so much the story of Alice's sister, Riley, who lacked any depth but had a rather major role.

While not a perfect book and certainly not a literary masterpiece, this is definitely perfect when you are in the mood for something kinda sappy, pretty sweet, and a little sad.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Book Review: The Last Girls

 I've had The Last Girls on my TBR list forever, and I grabbed a nice hardback copy at a used book store's "bargain books" aisle a couple of weeks ago.

Lee Smith never disappoints. She's a southern writer who never succumbs to southern clichés, who paints characters with such vivid details that I think I know the person in real life.

So, this novel made me kinda jealous that I never thought of doing this in a million years. I like adventure, theoretically now anyway but certainly in reality when I was 22. In her real life, Lee Smith and a dozen of her friends took a raft trip down the Mississippi River, Huckleberry Finn-style, upon their college graduation. How amazing is that? They really did it!

This fictionalized account takes the trip a step further: 35 years later, the women reunite and take the same trip, except this time on a steamboat, so that they can sprinkle the ashes of Baby Ballou into the river. Baby had been the wildest one in the bunch, and the friends all assume she committed suicide at the end. But who was Baby, really?

The novel focuses on five of the women, reflecting on who they were back in college and who they are now. I really loved this because I am often amazed at how little I think I know my best girlfriends from college now, 25 years later, even though we've kept vaguely in touch and claimed to be absolute soulmates back then and for a decade after. But really, we were still in the early stages of formation back then, figuring out who we were and who we were to become.

Smith's characters might be a bit typecast: the lonely librarian, the mysterious romance writer, the unhappy rich southern belle, the wild Sylvia Plath-like girl, but I didn't care at all. I love stories that wrap up nicely and have hopeful endings, and I especially love how Smith takes unformed college girls and shoots them 35 years into their future. This was a perfect summer read, and I need to go back and see if I've missed any of Smith's other novels.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Ever-Growing TBR List (2014)

*Indicates books added in 2014

*41 False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers by Janet Malcolm
* Alena by Rachel Pastan
An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith by Barbara Brown Taylor
* Americanah by Adichie.
Annie's Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret by Steve Luxenberg.
Aprons on a Clothesline by T. DePree
Arctic Dreams
by Barry Lopez
The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker
Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead: The Frank Meeink Story as Told by Jody M. Roy, Ph.D. (reviewed at Musings of a Bookish Kitty)
*The Baker's Daughter by Sarah McCoy 
Barefoot in Baghdad by Manal M. Omar (reviewed at Bookworm's Dinner)
Before the Storm by Diane Chamberlain
The Beginner's Goodbye by Anne Tyler
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo (read and reviewed 3/14)
Behind the Burqa by Sulima and Hala (reviewed by Semicolon)
* Bellman & Black: A Ghost Story by Diane Setterfield.
Blackberry Winter by Sarah Jio
Blood Hollow by W. Krueger
Blood of Flowers
by A. Amirrezvani
Blood Work
by M Connelly
* Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me by Karen Swallow Prior.
Book of a Thousand Days by S. Hale (reviewed on Semicolon and Maw Books)
Book of Lost Things by J. Connelly
* The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez
Bootletter’s Daughter by M. Maron
Born on a Blue Day by D. Tammet (reviewed on Sam’s Book Blog)
* China Dolls by Lisa See
*Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee. 
Clair de Lune by Jetta Carleton (read and reviewed 1/14)
Close Your Eyes by Amanda Eye Ward
Coming Up for Air by Patti Callahan Henry
Commoner by J.B. Schwarz
Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman
A Country Doctor’s Casebook by R. MacDonald
The Dawning of the Day: A Jerusalem Tale by Haim Sabato
Departed, The by K. Mackel
Digging to America by Anne Tyler
Dinner with a Perfect Stranger by D. Gregory
Dough: A Memoir by Mort Zachter (reviewed by Lisa at 5 Minutes for Books)
Dry Grass of August by Anna Jean Mayhew (read and reviewed 3/14) 
* Ecology of a Cracker Childhood (The World As Home) by Janisse Ray.
Every Last One by Anna Quindlen (Reviewed at S. Krishna's Books)
Executioner's Song by Mailer
Extraordinary Journey of a Desert Nomad by Waris Darie (reviewed at Maw Books)
Far to Go by Alison Pick (Reviewed by Kristina at The Book Keeper)
Family Nobody Wanted by Doss
Fatal Vision by J. McGinnis
Father, Mother, God: My Journey Out of Christian Science by Lucia Greenhouse
First Wife by Emily Barr (recommended by Fleur Fisher)
Flowers by D. Gilb
Fortune Cookie Chronicles by J. Lee
Franklin and Lucy by Joseph Persico
Gentle Rain by Deborah Smith (reviewed by Leah at Good Reads)
Ghost Map
by S. Jackson
Ghost Moth by Michele Forbes 
Ghost Writer, The by J. Harwood
The Girl in the Italian Bakery by Kenneth Tingle
The Girls by Lori Lansens
Giving Up the Ghost by Hilary Mantel
Glimpses of the Moon by Edith Wharton
* Glow by Jessica Maria Tuccelli:
* The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
* Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (read and reviewed 11/14)
* The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
* Guests on Earth  by Lee Smith
Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry
Hava: The Story of Eve by Tosca Lee
The Heretic's Daughter by Kathleen Kent (reviewed by Gautami at Reading Room)
High House, The
by James Stoddard
by John Hershey
Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler's Shadow by Susan C. Bartoletti (reviewed by Natasha at Maw Books)
Hot Zone by R. Preston (reviewed by Semicolon)
* The House at Tyneford by Natasha Solomons
How Reading Changed My Life by Anna Quindlen (mentioned by The Magic Lasso)
Human Cargo by C. Moorehead
A Hundred Summers by Beatriz Williams.
I Am Scout by Charles J. Shields (reviewed by Becky)
In Country by Bobbie Ann Mason
*In My Father's Country by Saima Wahab 
Introverts in the Church by Adam McHugh
* The Invention of Wings by  Sue Monk Kidd
Iris and Ruby by Rosie Thomas
by E. Southwark
Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me
by Ian Morgan Cron (reviewed at Rachel Held Evans)
Keeping the House by E. Baker
Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones (reviewed by Bookeywookey)
Last Days of Summer by Steve Kluger (reviewed at Thoughts of Joy)
The Last Girls by Lee Smith (read and reviewed here 6/14)
Last Storyteller by D. Noble
Leave it to Claire
by T. Bateman
Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading by Maureen Corrigan (reviewed by Literary Feline)
Left To Tell by Immaculee Ilibagiza (reviewed at Maw Books and Just a Reading Fool)
Liar’s Diary by P. Francis (reviewed by Semicolon)
Life Among Savages
by Shirley Jackson (reviewed at Dwell in Possibility)
Life Is So Good
by R. Glaubman
* The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman
* The Light in the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian.
Little Altars Everywhere by R. Wells
Living End
by L. Samson
Look Me in the Eye
by John Elder Robison
A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True by Brigid Pasulka (reviewed at The Lost Entwife)
*Long Man by Amy Greene (Read 9/14)
Lost Children of Wilder by N. Bernstein
Love Anthony by Lisa Genova
Loving Frank by N. Horan
* The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri.
* The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
Mad Girls in Love by M. West
Man without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut
Many Sleepless Nights
by Lee Gutkind
Mariner's Compass
by E. Fowler
The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok
Mercy Falls by WK Krueger
Minding the South
by J. Reed
* Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee by Marja Mills
Moloka’I by A. Brennert
Monique and the Mango Rains by Kris Holloway (Reviewed at The Bluestocking Society)
Murder in the Name of Honor by Rana Husseini (Reviewed at Reading Through Life)
My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier (Reviewed by Reading to Know)
Night Strangers by Chris Bohjalian
The Ninth Wife by Amy Stolls
Not without My Daughter
by B. Mahmoody
* The Orchid House by Lucinda Riley
Papua New Guinea: Notes from a Spinning Planet by M. Carlson (reviewed by Clean Reads)
Perfect Example by John Porcellino (reviewed at The Hidden Side of the Leaf)
* The Plague of Doves  by Louise Erdrich.
Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin (reviewed at Reader Buzz)
Prairie Tale by Melissa Gilbert
* A Prayer Journal by Flannery O'Connor
Promise Not To Tell by Jennifer McMahon (reviewed at Missy's Book Nook)
Proof of Heaven by Mary Curran Hackett
Property by Valerie Martin (reviewed by The Magic Lasso)
Quaker Summer
by Lisa Samson
Quilter’s Apprentice
by J. Chiaverini
The Quilt Walk by Sandra Dallas
* Radiance of Tomorrow by Ishmael Beah
Raising Demons by Shirley Jackson
Reading Lolita in Tehran by
Azar Nafisi
Refuge on Crescent Hill by Melanie Dobson (Reviewed at Reading to Know)
The Reservoir by John Milliken Thompson
* The Rest of the Story by Phan Thi Kim Phuc.
Riding the Bus with My Sister by Rachel Simon (read and reviewed 7/14)
Rise and Shine by Anna Quindlen
Rises the Night
by C. Gleason
The Round House by Louise Erdrich
Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books by Lynne Schwartz (reviewed on Shelf Life)
by Shactman
Rush Home Road by Lori Lansens
Russian Concubine by Kate Furnivall
Sailing Alone Around the Room by Billy Collins (reviewed by Just a Reading Fool)
Same Kind of Different As Me
by Ron Hall and Denver Moore (recommended by Stray Thoughts)
Saving Levi Left to Die
by Lisa Bently
Secret Keeper by Mitali Perkins (Reviewed by Word Lily)
Secrets of Eden by Chris Bohjalian (Reviewed at In the Pages)Sentimental, Heartbroken Rednecks by Greg Bottoms (Reviewed by Sage)
Seven Loves by Trueblood
She Got Up Off the Couch: And Other Heroic Acts from Mooreland, Indiana by Haven Kimmel
Slaves, Women & Homosexuals by William J. Webb 
* Snow by Orhan Pamuk
 So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell
The Soldier's Wife by Margaret Leroy (reviewed at Polishing Mud Balls)
Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill
Someone Named Eva by Joan M. Wolf (reviewed at Maw Books)
Some Girls by Jillian Lauren (reviewed by Book Club Classics)
Song of the Cuckoo Bird by Amulya Malladi
Song Yet Sung
by James McBride
Songs for the Missing by Stewart O'Nan
Songs of Willow Frost by Jamie Ford
Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture by Donna Partow
* Still Life with Bread Crumbs by Anna Quindlen
* Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis by Lauren F. Winner:
Stillwater by William Weld
by John Williams (suggested by JoAnn at Every Day Matters)
The Strange Case of the Broad Street Pump by Sandra Hempel
Summer Crossing by Truman Capote (reviewed by CaribousMom)
by M. Cabon
Teahouse Fire, The
by Ellis Avery
Stones Cry Out
by M Szymusiak
Testament of Youth
by Vera Brittain (recommended at Musings)
There Are No Children Here
by A. Kotlowitz
Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself
by Alan Alda
This Boy's Life
by Tobias Wolff
Thousand Years of Good Prayers
by Yiyun Li
The Threadbare Heart
by Jenny Nash (reviewed at Maw Books)
Three Cups of Tea
by G. Mortenson
The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht
Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum
Thousand Lives by Julia Scheeres
* A Thousand Mornings: Poems by Mary Oliver
Time Between by Mary Duenas
To My Senses by A. Weis (reviewed by J. Kaye)
Tomorrow, the River by D. Gray
Translator: A Tribesman's Memoir of Darfur
by D. Hari (reviewed by CaribousMom and Maw Books)
Trauma and Ghost Town by P. McGrath
Unbearable Lightness of Being by Kundera
Uprising by Margaret Haddix (reviewed by Semicolon)
Undress me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman (reviewed by Book Zombie)
* The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan
Very Valentine by Adriana Trigiani
The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
Well and the Mine, The by Gin Phillips (reviewed by Semicolon)
Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez
What I Though I Knew by Alice Eve Cohen
What Is What by D. Eggers (reviewed at Maw Books)
What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day by Pearl Cleage
What Peace There May Be by Susanna Brarlow
What Was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn (Reviewed at Big A, Little A)
When I Lay My Isaac Down by C. Kent
When She Woke by Hillary Jordan (read and reviewed 1/14
When We Were Strangers by Pamela Schoenewalt
Wherever you Go by Joan Leegant (reviewed by Bibliophiliac)
Whistling in the Dark by L. Kagen
Who Killed My Daughter by Lois Duncan (Reviewed at Nonfiction Lover)
Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah
Winter Seeking by V. Wright
Winter Walk
by L. Cox
Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (recommended at Rebecca Reads)
Women of the Silk by G. Tsuriyama
Year of Living Biblically
by AJ Jacobs (reviewed by Andi Lit)
Years of Grace by Margaret Ayer Barnes  
The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls  by Anton Disclafani.

Book Review: Sycamore Row

I usually give John Grisham a hard time. In fact, I began the review of the last book of his that I read with "Somebody, please, stop me next time I say I'm going to read the newest John Grisham novel! Why do I keep doing this to myself?"

Don't get me wrong: I admire John Grisham greatly. He is fantastic at what he does. It's just that so many of his books sound exactly the same, and, as I said in my last review, feature "bad dialogue and stereotypical characters." Lawsuit, courtroom, big scandal.

But guess what? I loved Sycamore Row. Honestly, I started reading it because I finished a book and didn't have another one to read. I absolutely loved A Time to Kill, Grisham's first book. Sycamore Row brings back Jake Brigance and Clanton, Mississippi. This takes place several years after the Carl Lee Hailey trial in A Time to Kill. Jake is a struggling small-town lawyer, trying to put his finances back in order after that famous trial. Nothing big ever really happens, until Seth Hubbard commits suicide.

Hubbard was an enigmatic man, reported as being unknowable and cold-hearted. His grown children have nothing to do with him until his death. The kids knew he was rich but had no idea exactly how many millions he was worth. To their utter shock, his handwritten will leaves almost everything to his black housekeeper and specifically demands that his children and grandchildren get nothing.

Jake Brigance, who never heard of Seth Hubbard until his death, is named as the lawyer for his estate in a letter mailed by Seth right before his death. And the legal battle is on between the estate of Seth Hubbard and his greedy, unpleasant children.

Here is why this book was different for me that many of Grisham's formulaic lawyer books: I think Grisham really cared about this book. I think he loves Jake Brigance and took his time in doing right by Jake. It's been 25 years since A Time to Kill.  He's written a lot of law novels in that time period that follow a formula and wrap up nicely, and a couple that are really excellent (A Painted House, The Innocent Man). I think that Grisham's writing is at its best when Grisham is passionate about his subject or the characters. I think all that in-between stuff is just fluff, just a way to fulfill contracts and make a great salary. But his artistry? Those gems come just often enough to keep me coming back. Because when Grisham is good, he's really, really good.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Book Review: Burial Rites

Hannah Kent's Burial Rites is an amazing debut novel. Set in Iceland in the early 1800s, it tells the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland. The prevailing mood throughout the book is cold, lonely, and despairing, yet Kent has a gift of weaving bits of warmth and compassion throughout the sad story.

The Jonsson family is forced to take Agnes, an accused murderess, into their home until her execution. The family—parents and two daughters in their early 20s—is horrified that they must provide food and housing for her. The mother is afraid that her daughters will somehow become tainted—or worse— by their proximity to Agnes.

But as the weeks pass, that fear and repulsion turns to a grudging appreciation and even respect for Agnes. She works hard on the Jonsson's farm, never complaining or shirking her duties. Eventually, her life's story comes out in bits and pieces as she talks to the parish priest, a young man she chose specifically because he once helped her cross a stream and showed true compassion. Agnes's life, according to her narrative, had been a cold and lonely one, abandoned by her single mother at a young age and forced to be a servant throughout farms in Iceland. In her 30s she falls in love with Natan, the man whom she is accused of murdering. But did she murder for money or for love—or did she even murder him?

Kent is a mesmerizing storyteller. I am sure I have never read a novel before that takes place in Iceland, so that in itself was fascinating. What a cold, horrible way of life—yet Kent manages to create a spark of life into this dismal landscape. I found myself feeling so terribly hopeless for Agnes, holding out hope that someone might believe her innocence, even though I knew the outcome of the story.

I highly recommend this book. It's a fascinating piece of history, a glimpse into Iceland in the 1800s, and a really well written story.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Book Review: The Funeral Dress

Contemporary novels given the designation "southern fiction" can go either way with me. Too often the stereotypes are overdone and painful. But Susan Gregg Gilmore's The Funeral Dress is one of the good ones. Rather than making Southerners look like hopeless hicks and chicks popping bubblegum, Gilmore gets to the heart of the mountain and its people.

Gilmore says she was inspired to write the novel because of an old photograph of her great aunt and uncle, taken outside the trailer they'd shared for over 50 years. Her novel explores a world in which living in a trailer would be an absolute luxury for a single teen mom, who wants more for her baby than a life raised in a shack without running water.

In so many novels, the young girl/boy is forced to drop out of school and go to work in the factory in order to support the family, and then they end up quitting the factory, going to college, rising above it all, etc. etc.  In this novel, Emmalee at 16 quits school and begin her life in the sewing factory and instantly enters a better life. Her poverty-infested world, which has been one humiliation after another with her abusive, drunken father, becomes a more livable place when she has just a little money and a purpose.

Emmalee becomes the special project of Loretta, who has a reputation as being cold and harsh. But Emmalee softens Loretta, and when Emmalee discovers that she is pregnant, Loretta promises to take her and the baby to her trailer to live. But what's a good southern novel without a tragic event? I'll avoid spoilers and stop here.

I really loved this novel. I am partial to mountain stories, especially ones that neither romanticize nor degrade the folks of Appalachia. This isn't a literary masterpiece, but it's a sweet, hopeful novel with a good dose of melancholy and redemption.

Linked up with Semicolon's Saturday Review of Books

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Book Review: The Girls of Atomic City

Our May book club choice, along with a version of "Atomic Cake"

Denise Kiernan's "untold story of the women who helped win WWII" was an obvious read for our book club. We're just 20 minutes from Oak Ridge, Tennessee and have all visited it many times, from the Secret City Festival to the amazing American Museum of Science and Energy, the fantastic Children's Museum of Oak Ridge, the Secret City Excursion Train, and the Oak Ridge Playhouse.

Anywhere you go in Oak Ridge, you come across its history. It's not a secret any longer.

Kiernan's book, though, tells of the days when Oak Ridge was a giant secret kept by thousands of people— 75,000 people who didn't even know what they were doing in Oak Ridge. It is a fascinating story. How do you keep thousands of people from knowing that they are creating an atomic bomb?

Kiernan focuses on a half dozen or so women who worked in Oak Ridge during the Manhattan Project in the early 1940s. She tells their stories: how and why they came to Oak Ridge, what they did at the jobs, how they reacted to the news of the bombs dropping on Japan—and realizing that this was what they had been creating.

Interspersed with stories of these women are chapters about the science of atomic energy. I must admit that I skimmed these sections, but for those who are more science-oriented, I think these would be fabulous.

We had fantastic discussions in our book club about the book using the discussion guide provided at the end of the book.  We spent the vast majority of our time talking about the first three questions. The first addressed how the format of the book is compartmentalized, as were the lives and work of people during the Manhattan Project.

The second question focused on the losses of land and community when Oak Ridge was built and the government just took over land that had been in families for generations. We spent a lot of time talking about this, as this is a common theme here in East Tennessee, with Oak Ridge, the TVA projects, and the Great Smoky Mountain National Park—all government programs that forced families off their land for little compensation.

From there, we discussed the second part of that question: do the ends of the Project justify the means? We had no answers for that, of course. Two of us have fathers who fought in WWII, and we talked about that and about the Japanese-American internment camps in the U.S.

Ultimately, we moved on only to the third question: "Discuss the role that patriotism played in everyday life during World War II. Do you think Americans today would be willing or able to make the same sacrifices – including top-secret jobs, deployment overseas, rationed goods, and strict censorship – that families of that era made? Why or why not?" And wow. We never made it out of that question.

I had to kick everyone out earlier than usual because my oldest son was graduating from college the next day, but I am sure we could have spent a few more hours discussing this book! This is a fascinating book no matter where you live; but if you live within a few hours of Oak Ridge and haven't visited it, I highly recommend both reading the book and visiting Oak Ridge.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Book Review: The Dry Grass of August

The Dry Grass of August is the debut novel by 71-year-old Anna Jean Mayhew. That makes me so happy. I'm not sure I have it in me to ever write a novel, but I love knowing that there are authors out there who are just getting published beyond 70.

This is a novel reminiscent of The Help: 1950s racial tension in the South, centering around a family and its maid. The story is told from the POV of a 13-year-old girl named Jubie, who adores Mary, the family's housekeeper/nanny, and despises her father. The novel opens with a trip from North Caroline to Florida—a trip in which Mary has to use a separate bathroom, eat outside in the car, etc. The trip turns out to be more of an escape than a vacation; Jubie's parents have a volatile marriage, and during this trip, Jubie finds out why.

At the beginning of the novel, Jubie tells us that "we lost Mary" on this trip, but we don't know exactly what that means until midway through the novel. The novel took a bit of a dive for me at this point. I think I needed to feel Jubie's utter powerlessness more. I needed to see more tension and devastation in order to be convinced of what she did. There were just parts that didn't click for me, and maybe I shouldn't get hung up on these things; but I found it unbelievable that a 13-year-old would drive from Georgia to Charlotte in the middle of the night in the family car. There wasn't enough evidence in the first half that Jubie was this person.

Regardless, this was a good novel. The ending was weak. I said "Wait? That was the end?" Perhaps there will be a sequel. It isn't necessarily bad to want more: I wanted more depth to the characters, more tying up of loose ends, more closure. But there were fantastic moments in the novel—Mayhew is a lovely writer— and it is definitely worth reading.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Book Review: The Girl You Left Behind

JoJo Moyes' The Girl You Left Behind was so much like The Last Letter from Your Lover that I am not sure I can even tell the two apart. Oh, the story line was different but the structure was nearly identical.

First there was a story in which I was utterly engrossed, completely wrapped up in the characters, reading frantically to see what would happen to them… and then boom. Their story is over and we move to contemporary times and a new story that loosely involves the first story. I really liked The Last Letter From Your Lover, but this time I felt manipulated.

Here's the thing: the first story in both of these novels was absolutely fantastic. This novel tells the heartbreaking story of Sophie, a young French bride whose artist-husband is a French soldier in WWI. When her village is occupied by German soldiers, Sophie has to make some hard decisions in order to protect her family and save Eduoard. This part was well written and captivating.

And then. We move to the present day with a story that I never could quite pin down. I couldn't see the characters, couldn't feel them, and didn't care what they did because of that. I just wanted to go back to Sophie. Sophie's story does wrap up ultimately in the second half, but only with a few speculative sentences.

I'm probably done reading this author for awhile, unless I hear a compelling argument that not all her books follow this format. I just want the first stories told to completion without any clever intertwining through the generations.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Book Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity

Garbage, disease, hopelessness, corruption: Katherine Boo's nonfiction account of life in one of India's slums is definitely not a feel-good beach read. It's a grueling look into how the have-nots struggle to survive in the midst of staggering poverty.

We're first introduced into the Annawadi slum through Abdul, a boy who supports his large family by collecting and selling garbage. This garbage, of course, he must store in their tiny part of a shack so that other scavengers don't steal it. The rats feast nightly, both on garbage and on the children. Annawadi is a world in which corruption runs rampant (the police are constantly looking to be paid off), education is almost nonexistent, and the daily goal is just to survive—and maybe make a little money.

A cast of other characters appear in Boo's account, ranging from a one-legged crazy woman to a young girl who hopes to be the first in Annawadi to get a college degree. Critics call this a hopeful, redeeming book, but I can't say I found it at all hopeful. In the end, everyone is living in the slum still, hoping to figure out how they can get rich.

While I didn't find it hopeful, it was extremely enlightening. As a middle-class American, no matter how many hungry, homeless Americans I've seen, I can't even slightly conceive of the kind of poverty that is described in this book. It all feels so hopeless and heartbreaking—and yet we must know—and car about— the desperation that is rampant in the world.

While I didn't love the book—who could?—I did find it to be a valuable read and one that is important for shaping a global perspective.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Book Review: The Last Letter From Your Lover

I couldn't help but love this novel of lost-and-found love by Jojo Moyes. It's that kind of novel filled with missed opportunities, misunderstandings, and second chances that just leaves you feeling as if something really good happened.

Let me just state right from the start that this is fluffy chick lit. And I'm only a little ashamed to be reading it, but it serves as a nice cushion between re-readings of The Book Thief and A Long Way Gone: Memoir of a Boy Soldier. Yep. I relish fluffy stuff now and then.

And so the story goes that Jennifer wakes up in the hospital and can't remember anything about her life. I know! I love amnesia! (What Alice Forgot is a great amnesia story, for real.) She's been in a car accident, but that's all she knows. She's reluctant to tell anyone, including her husband, just how little she remembers, but things just don't seem right to her. She feels as if she is missing something, and eventually she begins to find letters from her lover hidden around her house.

Bit by bit she pieces together the life she had with him, which is much different than the upper-class, society wife life that she has with her husband. She wants to find this mysterious "B" again, and when she does, well, I won't give that away. The last third of the book includes a separate love story that confused me at first, but ultimately it all tied together like a nice little present.

I can't help myself. I was wrapped up in the story. Moyes is a good writer and a great storyteller. It's easy and satisfying and makes a great in-between read.

Linked up with Semicolon's Saturday Review of Books

Friday, February 7, 2014

Book Review: In the Sanctuary of Outcasts

Most of us, upon hearing the terms "leprosy," have some kind of biblical scene play out in our minds: Jesus and the 10 lepers, Miriam's hand white with leprosy, lepers on the outskirts of town. But leprosy still exists. In fact, only in the past 30 years has leprosy been cured successfully. 

For over 100 years, a facility in Carville, Louisiana housed individuals in the U.S. who had contracted leprosy, now called Hansen's disease. I was aware of the leprosarium, but I didn't realize that it was still in existence up until the late 1990s; I thought it had closed back in the early part of the 20th century.

This memoir by Neil White opens in 1993, when White, an educated white-collar businessman, is sent to prison for fraud and check kiting. It's a minimum-security prison in what appears to be a plantation. What White doesn't realize and is astonished to discover is that he and his 250 fellow prisoners will be sharing their prison sentences with130 social outcasts: the last lepers in the U.S. The Federal Prison System apparently decided that Carville hospital is the perfect place to house low-security inmates. Evidently, the patients had no voice in the decision to share their home with convicts.

White is terrified at first that he'll catch leprosy. He views the patients with disgust and distrust. If he shakes a hand with one of them, will he catch it? Eventually, he learns more about the disease and begins to form relationships with the patients. He is astonished by their stories. Many of them were taken from their families when they were small children and quarantined in Carville. Even when they were allowed to return home after decades in the hospital, many chose to stay on in the only home they'd really ever known.

In his 18 months there, White discovers all kinds of truths about himself: mostly, that he is a selfish, phony young man who thrives on attention and kudos.  He has betrayed everyone he knows, leaving a trail of disaster for his wife and parents to clean up. He seems, in some ways, relieved to be in prison, away from the mess he's created of his life. It is here in this quiet place that he is stripped of pretense and forced to learn who he really is.

Much of the memoir is about the people White meets, both prisoners and patients.  White encounters  a wide cast of fascinating characters, and he describes them well. Whether they are patients or prisoners, the inmates have one thing in common: they are on the outskirts of society. For the prisoners, there is always a sense of desire: they are anxious for the day they'll be released. They take classes, set up business schemes, write resumes. But the patients just go about their days, used to life in this quiet sanctuary and never expecting anything else. White's favorite person is Ella, a patient who has spent almost her entire life in the hospital. It is from her that he learns to slow down and appreciate life, no matter what the circumstances.

I really loved this book. White provides a fascinating look at a little known part of American history, combined with a fantastic search-for-identity story. Highly recommended.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Book Review: Labor Day

When our book club was offered a chance by William Morrow Paperbacks to read and discuss Labor Day by Joyce Maynard, we jumped. I had already read the book and liked it, and I was pretty sure our club members would enjoy it. The deal is that we all 10 received a copy of the book, and when the movie comes out in a few days, we'll get tickets to go see it. What a deal! But I had no idea how much the offer to review it would motivate our book club.

Frankly, our book club is notorious for being largely a chatting club. I'd say we run around 60% average "I read the book." Sometimes we even decide not to talk about the book much so that we don't spoil it for those who haven't. But this one? Let's just say that after this meeting, we agreed that when we all actually read the book, we have fabulous discussions!

Part of the fun of the night is that we were challenged to make snacks based on foods served in the book. Donna made curry soup, which was absolutely fantastic and perfect on a cold January night.

Rachel made lady fingers drizzled in French silk chocolate based on a scene involving, um, silk scarves…

And Sarah and Elizabeth both made peach pies. Of course we all had to try both of them, and oh. my. goodness. They were both absolutely amazing!

The process of making peach pies was rather central and quite memorable in this book about a boy, his mom, and the convict that changes the course of their lives.

Caroline brought this article from Parade Magazine about author Joyce Maynard teaching Josh Brolin and Kate Winslet, who star in the upcoming movie, how to make a pie. (You can actually watch a how-to video on the link.) I loved this part of the book—when the convict, who has escaped from prison and has invited himself to live with 13-year-old Henry and his emotionally fragile mother, Adele, teaches Henry how to bake a pie.

But enough about the food. The book itself received an almost unanimous "I loved it" from our group. One of our members called it "fluffy chick lit" and didn't particularly like it. This isn't heavy literature, but I personally would not categorize it as "fluffy." It's a quick, easy, and satisfying read.

We used the readers' guide at the back of the book to facilitate our discussion, although of course we veered off course many times. The questions promoted all kinds of discussion about parenthood, the definition of family, coming of age, and love at first sight.

We all loved Henry, the lonely boy, and Frank, the loving convict. We felt rather disgusted with Adele, Henry's mother, who had checked out emotionally years ago after Henry's father left her. As one member said, "Loving your kid doesn't mean you're a a good mother." But Frank sees something worth saving in Adele, and his gentleness both nurtures Adele and encourages Henry. For a short time, they are a family.

The problem is that this new family is living on borrowed time. The authorities are looking for Frank, and he can only stay in hiding at Adele's for so long before he's caught. We all know that their fairytale life can't continue.

And that's all I'm going to say about the plot.

There were some wonderful moments in the novel. Maynard is fantastic at painting a picture that sticks in the reader's mind. I remember particularly a beautiful scene where the rough convict bathes a wheelchair-bound boy, a baseball lesson, as well as a couple of vivid pie-making scenes. Henry, Adele, and Frank are the most memorable characters, but we also see a lot of his father and stepmother as well as an anorexic girl who becomes Henry's friend, of sorts. Lots of complicated relationships are explored in the novel; Maynard does a great job of showing how parents' actions and choices impact a kid's life forever—and how one selfless man can change all that.

We are all looking forward to seeing Labor Day brought to the screen within the next few weeks. Movies are always risky, especially so soon after reading a book—before our middle-aged brains have forgotten all the details. We plan to meet after the movie to compare and contrast it with the book. And I'm hoping someone will make another peach pie!

{Disclaimer: as mentioned, I was provided with review copies of the book and will receive movie tickets for reviewing the book. The opinions of the book, however, are not influenced by this bounty.}