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.}

Friday, January 24, 2014

Book Review: When She Woke

Imagine Hester Prynne's scarlet letter being a red body, Arthur Dimmesdale as a televangelist, and little Pearl being, well, non-existent, and you have Hillary Jordan's When She Woke. It's The Scarlet Letter of the future.

There is no dividing line between church and state, and there are no prisons. Criminals aren't tucked away in prisons to rehabilitate but are "chromed": their skin color is genetically altered to match their crime. Once chromed, they are put back into society, where they are despised. Basically anything can be done to Chromes without repercussion.

Hannah (Hester Prynne) is a Red—a murderer. Her crime is abortion, and that she refused to name the father of her baby makes her crime even worse. It's no spoiler to reveal that her lover is her married pastor, a Joel Osteen-like Arthur Dimmesdale who seduced young Hannah, predictably raised in an ultra-conservative, fundamentalist home.

On a certain level, I found the book fascinating. Jordan is a great writer, so that was a big bonus. But too much happened—and not enough happened. Hannah is sent to a sort of halfway house that's run by some kind of warped headmistress. She meets a cast of Chromes there that I would have loved to see developed more. Ultimately Hannah escapes and heads into the real world.

Things got weird from here on out and moved really fast. Hannah and her friend, a Yellow, hook up with a pro-choice group and are forced into an underground railroad/witness protection type program. Somehow these people are able to intercept the signals that tell where Chromes are. Of course, Hannah has to see Pastor Dale one more time before she goes away to Canada forever.

In many ways I really liked the first part of the book. It was intriguing and the pace was good. But things got rushed midway through, and so much was thrown at the  reader that it began to read too much like a let's-cram-as-much-in-as-possible tract. I liked the twist on The Scarlet Letter, and I love dystopian novels in general. I think this one had too much of the author's own bias in it and it felt too preachy. An intriguing concept, though, so I don't not recommend it—it's just not quite my cup of tea. I think it would make a fantastic movie!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Book Review: Clair de Lune

Our book club read Jetta Carleton's The Moonflower Vine last year and absolutely loved it. I put her only other novel, Clair de Lune, on my reading list right away and finally got to it. It's a short, quick read that I thoroughly enjoyed, although not nearly as much as The Moonflower Vine.

Clair de Lune is a sweet, nostalgic coming-of-age novel, set right before World War II. Allen Liles is a young woman fresh out of graduate school who gets a job teaching English at a junior college in a small town in Missouri. It isn't what she wants for her life, but she's always been the good girl who does what her mother tells her to do. Allen has big dreams; she wants a glamorous life in a big city. She has visions of being a famous writer, attending parties and wearing expensive clothes. But she has a debt to pay first, and at the urging of her mother, she chooses the sensible path.

The novel then chronicles Allen's first year of teaching. She's a bit of a fish out of water among the faculty, being young and enthusiastic. Life is fairly boring and predictable for her until two of her students, George of Toby, become her best friends. By day she's a teacher, but by night she's just a young woman in her early 20s, feeling freedom and fun for the first time. She lives for her nights with George and Toby, ignoring the slight feeling that perhaps she shouldn't be fraternizing with students. She also ignores all the talk of a pending war, preferring instead to believe that life will always be carefree and sweet.

It's a year of growth and self-discovery for Allen. She's emerging from the cocoon of her childhood and college years and discovering that she is really fairly ignorant about much of the world, although she is smarter than she thought in some ways. I found Allen totally easy to relate to. I remember being in that odd age of the early 20s, when I found myself being, well, an adult who still felt like a kid. Like Allen, I wasn't really ready to let go and yet I was terribly ready for the next stage of my life.

The novel was discovered and published years after Jetta Carleton's death, and in many ways, it feels unfinished. I think Carleton wasn't ready for it to be published and had a lot more to say about Allen. But even with the incomplete feeling, I loved it. Carleton is a wonderful writer, and she beautifully captured the time period and the longing of a young woman's heart. The Moonflower Vine is definitely much better, but I really loved this one, too.

Monday, January 6, 2014

2013: The Year in Books (The Sunday Salon)

In 2013 I read and reviewed 38 books here on SmallWorld Reads, and probably read a dozen others (juvenile fiction read alouds to my youngest). I've been doing this for six years now. (See my other Best of the Years posts.) This is my "worst" year in reading in all those years. I was a slower reader. I didn't have any long car trips during which I read non-stop, and our vacation to Paris was so crammed with activities that reading was shoved aside. But there were some great books this year—and some really not so great ones, too.

Top 10 Books Read in 2013 (click for my reviews)

Favorite Book of the Year
Rachel Simon's Story of Beautiful Girl is going to take this year's #1 position, followed very closely by Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. I just absolutely loved both of these, although the first is a novel and then second a nonfiction account of survival in World War II. I look forward to 2014 to find at least 10 books as fabulous as the ones in my list above!

I read several classics this year—a huge bonus of being an English teacher. I don't count these on my Top 10 list because they are perpetually in my top 10.  Here are my beloved classics from this year:
  • Breakfast at Tiffany's (Truman Capote) 
  • Crucible, The (Arthur Miller)
  • Cry, the Beloved Country (Alan Paton)
  • Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Robert Louis Stevenson)
  • The Good Earth (Pearl S. Buck)
  • The Metamorphosis (Franz Kafka)
  • Other Voices, Other Rooms (Truman Capote)
    Raisin in the Sun (Lorraine Hansberry)
  • The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (Anne Brontë)
    To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee)

• I added only 19 books to my Ever-Growing TBR list (last year's total was 38), and I marked off 19. Wow!! For the first time ever, my TBR list will start the new year without having gained more. Somehow, I find that discouraging rather than encouraging, though. I'm not activity looking for books as much as usual.   I learned about books from posts on The Sunday Salon, Semicolon's Saturday Review of Books, from various internet sources, from personal recommendations, and especially from other book bloggers.

 • Below is the total list of books read, minus the juvenile fiction. Each link leads to a review or, rarely, to if I didn't get a chance to review it. My star-ranking system is as follows: 5 stars--absolutely must read; 4 stars--highly recommended; 3 stars--enjoyable; 2 stars--ick; 1 star--no, no, no.