Saturday, November 19, 2016

Books Read in October

 Guests on Earth by Lee Smith.
The story: Age 13 and newly orphaned, Evalina is admitted to Highland Hospital in Asheville, NC, as a mental patient—although she is certainly not mentally ill. Highland becomes her home, nonetheless. Evalina meets a cast of interesting characters during her many years in Highland, including Zelda Fitzgerald. While Zelda makes only brief appearances in the novel, she adds an interesting and realistic touch to it. The novel also provides a glimpse into psychiatric practices—lobotomies, shock treatment, insulin injections— of the early-to-mid 20th century.
Me: I liked this novel, although it's definitely not a stand out for me. It seemed a bit contrived and rambling, but it was a good story—and I always love Zelda appearances. A couple of years ago, I took my American literature class on a field trip to Asheville, and we drove by what used to be the Highland Hospital, so that was a great connection.

Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya. This is a multiple re-read for me. I teach this as part of my World literature class. Click on title link for my review.

Songs for the Missing by Stewart O'Nan.
The story: One day 18-year-old Kim doesn't show up for work. Kim's a responsible girl, a typical teenager. She has all kinds of secrets from her parents, but she's dependable and definitely not runaway material. Her boyfriend and her best friend are perplexed, and they join her parents and younger sister in a search that is supported by the whole community—for a while. But eventually the leads grow cold, and Kim's friends go off to college and try to make new lives for themselves. Her younger sister becomes "that girl" in her school—the one whose sister is missing. And her parents struggle with finding the balance between living and searching.
Me: I have no idea how I happened to pick up two missing-daughter novels in consecutive months (Tim Johnston's Descent was the other)! These are terrible books to read when one has a teen daughter! But both were well written and fascinating. I liked Johnston's better. Descent was more of a plot read and psychological thriller, whereas O'Nan's was more raw and desolate. That has nothing to do with the writing: both were truly excellent. O'Nan's is missing, well, a happy ending.

Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum.
The story: Trudy is a middle-aged history professor who has little sense of familial obligation. Caring for her mother, Anna, is a side duty for her. She visits her on proper holidays and leaves as soon as she can. Their relationship, built on hears of silence, has always been strained. But Anna has a reason for her silence: her past is too painful to disclose. During World War II, Anna was forced to be a Nazi officer's mistress in order to keep herself and, more importantly, little Trudy alive. Adult Trudy knows none of her story, and, in fact, she is disdainful of what she thinks she knows about her mother's life. Anna's story is revealed in alternating chapters, which are much more interesting than the chapters devoted to Trudy.
Me: Anna's story was heartbreaking and mesmerizing. Sometimes it was a bit too graphic, but I tend to be a fairly sensitive reader. I've read dozens of WWII era novels, yet somehow, this presents still another perspective—that of a young German woman who does what she has to in order to survive. I didn't love the chapters with Trudy, but I understand that this was a mechanism to tell her mother's story in flashback. Still, Anna's story is powerful and absolutely worth reading.

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry by Fredrik Backman.
The story: Seven-year-old Elsa is a genius. When her grandmother, who was her best friend, dies, Elsa is left with the task of taking care of various people by delivering letters of apology to them. The people nearly all live in her grandmother's apartment building, and they all were somehow rescued by her grandmother. Ultimately, they all come together to save Elsa—and themselves.
Me: I wanted to like this book. I loved A Man Called Ove. Really loved it. But–I didn't get this one. It could have been because I was traveling to and around Austria during the time I was reading it. It could have been jet lag. But I was glad when the book was over, and I felt confused after reading it. Amazon reviewers say it's fantastic, involving, charming, and funny, but I missed most of that. I was just perplexed and felt like I didn't get the joke.

Home Front by Kristen Hannah.
The story: Jolene is an eternally optimistic, upbeat helicopter pilot; her husband, Michael, is a lawyer who is anti-military and disgruntled with their life. Their marriage is falling apart, but Jolene is too optimistic to confront him. One night Michael finally tells her that he doesn't love her anymore, and, before she can figure out what to do with the information, she is deployed. Michael has to step up to the plate and take care of their two young daughters while she's at war. Midway through her deployment, she is injured and comes home as a different person—one that they all have to figure out how to live with.
Me: I loved Hannah's The Nightingale. It will probably be in my Top 10 best books of this year. And so.... I was terribly disappointed in this novel. There was so much about it that just didn't make sense. Why was the husband such a jerk? Why didn't she confront him about being a jerk? Why did he marry her if she was career military and he was anti-military? Why did he keep buying her wine if she had a drinking problem? Why does the little girl always want to play patty-cake? Why was he surprised that he was a "military family"? I just didn't love this book. It was formulaic and felt so contrived. But The Nightingale? Please, read that one!!

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Books Read in September

The Lake House by Kate Morton.
The story: Flashing between the past and the present, Morton presents the mystery of a little boy lost and the subsequent disintegration of his family. Baby Theo, beloved only son of the Edevane family, disappeared one night without a trace. 75 years later, his older sisters are the only ones left in the family. They moved away from the beloved lake house soon after his disappearance. Enter Detective Sadie Sparrow, who's on forced leave from the department because of a case gone bad. While visiting her grandfather, she discovers an abandoned estate and an unsolved mystery from 75 years ago.
Me: Kate Morton is one of my favorite contemporary writers. She is kinda magical. Her stories are mesmerizing and her language simply beautiful. I've read and reviewed The Forgotten GardenThe House at Riverton, and The Distant Hours. I also read The Secret Keeper but apparently didn't review it. I love all of them! Out of all, this one was probably the least riveting to me, but it was still absolutely fantastic. I highly recommend anything and everything by Kate Morton.

Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas.
Long-time favorite that I teach in my high school World Lit class. Reviewed here.

The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens.
The story: Joe worked hard to get to college. His childhood was tough with an alcoholic mother and an autistic younger brother. An English class assignment requires that he interview an older person and write that person's biography. He heads to the nursing home and is given the only person there without Alzheimer's: a dying convict. Throughout the book, Joe discovers that there is a lot more to Carl than his murder conviction. He is determined to find the truth about Carl's story before Carl dies of cancer—but the real story turns out to be a dangerous one still. While searching for resolution, Joe's mother abandons his brother, and Joe has to deal with childhood demons of his own.
Me: First, I loved the main character, Joe, and his brother Jeremy. Joe's just a good guy who takes incredibly good care of his brother. I loved the story of Carl, too. The book got a little far-fetched when Joe meets up with the murder victim's family, but that's OK. The writing was great and the story really compelling. A great read.

Descent by Tim Johnston.
The story: A family heads from Wisconsin to Colorado for one last family vacation before Caitlin heads off to college. Caitlin is a runner, and she and her younger brother, Sean, head up to the mountains first thing in the morning for a run/bike. And then the impossible happens: Sean is hit by a car, and Caitlin hitches a ride down the mountain, she thinks for help. Big mistake. The rest of the novel follows each character:  Grant and Angela (the parents) and Sean as the navigate the search for Caitlin and the aftermath—the years without her.
Me: This book was seriously hard-pounding. I could not stop reading it, practically ignoring everything and everyone else in my life for a couple of days. And this is not just a gripping plot read: Johnston is a terrific writer. He's refined. Sharp. Introspective. I cannot even believe that he doesn't have 5 other novels for me to read. He needs to get busy on his next novel.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Books Read in August

A Man Called Ove by Fredrick Backman.
The story: Ove is the definition of grumpy old man. He's bitter, cranky, judgmental, and rude. He sees the world in absolute black and white. He's the guy in the neighborhood who makes sure no one breaks any rules and no one has any fun. He's mad, and he wants everyone else to be mad, too. And then new neighbors move in next door, and Parvaneh, the wife, just keeps loving him, no matter how prickly and exasperating he is.
Me: I LOVE THIS BOOK!!! I feel like, between Ove and Harold Fry, I've seen the redemption of two wonderful old men this summer. This is a novel of tremendous tenderness, sadness, and joy. You can't help but feel utter hope in the human race upon reading this book. It reaffirms what we all know: that beyond a bitter exterior can rest a heart of pure gold. Highly recommended.

The Geography of Genius by Eric Weiner.
The story: Many years ago in the Geography of Bliss, Eric Weiner set out to find the happiest places on Earth. In his newest travelogue of sorts, Weiner looks for the smartest places in the world. Why were places like Athens, Florence, Edinburgh, Calcutta, Vienna, and the Silicon Valley hotbeds of creativity? Why did geniuses seem flourish there? Are geniuses born or made? What are the attributes of a creative place? Weiner takes us on a tour of eight different places, studying the characteristics of that city and its geniuses. It's a historical text, sociological study, and travelogue all together.
Me: So, I was off my usual 4-5 books this month because this book took me a little over three weeks to get through. Three weeks! There are so many great questions raised and interesting fodder for discussion, such as:
• Is creativity contagious?
• Are we more creative in crowds?
• Is chaos an essential ingredient to creativity?
• Does it take a city to raise a genius?
• Why do pockets of geniuses seem to flourish and then fade away?
I love the idea that “what is honored in a country will be cultivated there." What are we stifling in America by boxing in our future geniuses? It's a sad thought. This was our book club pick for September, and it was a fascinating read. I took copious notes and look forward to discussing a variety of topics with my fellow book club members.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Books Read in July

The Ship of Brides by JoJo Moyes (2014)
The story: This novel is based on the true story of 650 Australian war brides who crossed the sea in an aircraft carrier from Australia to Great Britain to be reunited with their mostly British husbands in 1946. (The author's grandmother was one of the brides.) The book focuses mainly on four of the brides, as well as on the captain and a Marine. The novel is framed by the present as an old woman sees a ship and flashes back to her sea journey. This frame scene was extremely confusing, as were the first several chapters before the ship departs, jumping from character to character as she (or he) prepares to leave. The story eventually all came together when the ship departs, and from that point on, I thoroughly enjoyed the novel.
Me: Once I got past the initial confusion and jumping around, I became really engrossed by the book and all the characters. I love novels based on true historical events, especially unknown bits of history like this. I asked my Dad, a WW2 vet and an avid historian, if he knew anything about these war brides, and he had never heard of this. Kudos to Moyes to telling the story for these women and their descendants. 650 women who left their continent for another world: that's quite a story to tell! It wasn't a perfect novel; some of the story lines felt disconnected and extraneous. Still, it was quite interesting and unusual. Recommended.

Lost in Translation by Nicole Mones (1999)
The story: Alice is an expatriate living in China. She's a translator who likes Chinese men— a lot. A lot of Chinese men. She's fleeing a childhood with a famous politician father who was also a racist. When she was in her mid 20s, her father forbade her to marry a Chinese man, and she's been drifting from man to man ever since. Enter Adam Spencer, an American archeologist who hopes to find the famed Peking Man and needs Alice to translate for him. From there, the story goes to the search for Peking Man, Alice's search for her own identity, and Alice's love story with Dr. Lin, another archeologist.
Me: I had an extremely difficult time immersing myself in this novel at first, but I think that more likely because I kept putting it down to read other books that had quick due dates at the library. Mones is an excellent writer, first of all. Her prose is captivating and requires slow reading (unlike, for example, JoJo Moyes). This is not a "plot read": this is a book with many complex layers, reflective of the Chinese culture that permeates the novel. Alice herself is an extremely complex character, a brilliant woman driven by demons and a constant search for wholeness. I ultimately became engrossed in the novel and fascinated by the complexities of this dual cultural life of Alice, who so desperately wants to be a true Chinese. I recommend this novel, but it is much more than a beach read. Be prepared to concentrate.

The Spectator Bird by Wallace Stegner (1976)
The story: Joe is a retired literary agent, who does the proverbial puttering around the house. His wife, Ruth, is fairly disgusted with him. He seems to just be done with life. A postcard from an old friend prompts him to find a set of journals he kept during a particularly difficult time in his life: right after the death of their only son. Although Joe is a historically uncommunicative person, Ruth begs his to read the journals aloud to him. Through the journals, they are able to see each other and, perhaps more importantly, Joe is able to see himself as something other than a passive spectator of his own life.
Me: Wallace Stegner is, well, one of the best American novelists. I mean, I'm kind of sheepish to even be writing a review of one of his novels on a silly little blog. One feels the presence of greatness between the pages of such a book.  As I was reading this short novel, I was struck by the careful construction of each and every sentence, by the obvious love of language and the ability to manipulate it in such a fluid and powerful way. There are writers who are purely storytellers, and there are writers who are artists as well. Stegner is falls into the latter category, of course. The plot is really almost insignificant in such a novel. Joe and Ruth— how intimately we know them after reading this. They become living, breathing people, rather than the flat, silly characters of so many other entertaining yet fluffy books written today. They are the people next door, your parents' friends, the couple who you see at the grocery store every week. You realize that in another 20 years or so, you'll be Joe and Ruth, with your own journals to read and stories to reconfigure. Highly recommended. Savor it, and appreciate Stegner's incredible gift.

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion (2012)
The story: Don Tillman wants a wife. He's a brilliant, handsome genetics professor who also, unbeknownst to himself, displays all the characteristics of Asperger's Syndrome. He has little patience for social customs and has failed miserably at any conventional attempts at dating, so  he devises the Wife Project: a 16-page questionnaire/application that will eliminate all but the perfect wife. She can't smoke, drink much, dye her hair, wear lipstick, etc. And then he accidentally meets Rosie, who is a perfectly unqualified candidate, so he thinks.
Me: I loved everything about this novel. I laughed out loud many times and read the whole darn thing through in one afternoon, in spite of having a dozen other things I should have been doing. I happened to have recently spent time with a friend who could be Don in real life, so I was especially attuned to the quirks, patterns, and absolute lovableness of a guy like Don. (It's never explicitly stated that Don has Asperger's, nor is my friend officially diagnosed.) Anyway, this is just a funny, sweet, smart, and happy story. I wanted it to be twice as long as it was, but, fortunately, there is a second Rosie novel which I hope to find soon. Highly recommended!

Death at Wentwater Court by Carola Dunn (1994)
The story: While visiting Wentwater Court and writing an article about this noble family of England, Daisy Dalrymple stumbles into a murder investigation. The story takes place in the 1920s, and there is a predictable cast of characters doing and saying predictable things. The detective interviews the whole family, etc. etc.
Me: It was a simple mystery. There was nothing surprising, particularly satisfying, memorable, or even terribly interesting. I read it because it is our August book for book club. I don't really have anything to say about it other than I have no idea what we can possibly discuss at our next meeting. Man dies, someone did it, and who did it isn't much of a mystery. I guess if you like simple, cozy, sleepy British mysteries, then perhaps you will enjoy this?

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy by Rachel Joyce.
The story:  First, you must read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry for this novel to make sense. But that's good news, because Harold Fry is absolutely fabulous. If you've already read Harold Fry, then very quickly run and get this book. This is the story of Queenie, who waits in hospice for Harold Fry to walk across England to reach her before she dies. In Harold Fry, we journey with him as he makes his physical and emotional pilgrimage. In this novel, though, we hear Queenie's side of the story. And what a tragic yet beautiful story it is.
Me: "If only memory were a library with everything stored where it should be. If only you could walk to the desk and say to the assistant, I'd like to return the painful memories about David Fry or indeed his mother and take out some happier ones please." Rachel Joyce is simply an incredibly storyteller. I thought Harold Fry was pretty much a perfect novel, but The Love Song is possibly even better. And the two together? Power couple. I read it all in one day. Told from the perspective of Queenie, who is on her deathbed, the novel was bittersweet and so beautiful written. She pulls back layer after layer of memory to reveal the story of her love affair with Harold Fry and, in a sense, with his son David. These two novels together will no doubt be if not by favorite of the year, then certainly in the top 5.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Books Read in June

Chasing the North Star by Robert Morgan.
The story: Jonah Williams becomes a runaway slave on his 18th birthday after his master whips him for borrowing a book (thank goodness his master never put it together that Jonah could actually read the book, thanks to his master's wife!). He didn't exactly intend to run away; he didn't think it all through clearly and didn't have  plan. All Jonah knows is that he needs to get as far north as possible. Along the way he meets Angel, who had been her master's plaything since she was a 12-year-old girl. Jonah doesn't want Angel to travel with him, but she keeps popping up wherever he lands. The story takes us on the journey north with them, through a series of narrow escapes and ultimately to freedom.
Me: I didn't love this book.  The first part was extremely slow moving; the details of Jonah moving through the woods, camping out, being cold, etc. were just too tedious for me. I supposed I am largely a dialogue-driven reader, and there was little to none during the first part of the novel. I was just getting to the point of giving up when Angel enters the story. I liked having Angel there; she was more interesting than Jonah, although I found it remarkable that a slave woman could hop on the train and travel and then just happen to meet up with Jonah again. She seemed to always be appearing just when he needed to be rescued, which seemed way too far fetched for me. Robert Morgan is one of my favorite contemporary writers, but this was not one of my favorite books. It's beautifully written, of course, but somehow I wasn't drawn in by the characters enough.

We Never Asked for Wings by Vanessa Diffenbaugh.
The story: When her parents decide to move back to Mexico, Letty is forced to become a parent for the first time, even though her kids are 15 and 6. She has no idea how to take care of her own kids; her parents fed them, clothed them, and raised them while she worked three jobs and partied on her time off. She has no choice but to figure it all out on her own, and, for the most part, she does a decent job. But just as she's starting to get the hang of it, some complications arise: she starts to fall in love with a guy, her son's father returns, and a series of other events threaten to shatter her newly constructed world.
Me: I adored Diffenbaugh's The Language of Flowers, and I really liked this one too-- not as well, but it was a great read. It's not perfect; there was some details that were a bit too contrived or unexplained. But I'm OK with that. I loved the characters, especially Letty and her son Alex. It's a sweet story of growth, family, and overcoming obstacles. Definitely recommended for a light but meaningful read.

The Good Girl by Mary Kubica.
The story: Mia, the adult daughter of the well-to-do Judge and Mrs. Dennett, has been kidnapped and is being held in a remote cabin in Minnesota. Mrs. Dennett is beside herself, but the Judge is remote and cold. The story flashes between the past and present through the eyes of various characters: Mrs. Dennett; Colin (the kidnapper); and Gabe, the detective. Sometimes multiple narrators are confusing, but in this case, they are nicely labeled. What a great idea!
Me: Oh my goodness. This book was positively mesmerizing. I almost didn't read it when I saw that Harlequin was the publisher! I wondered why I even had it on my reading list. But honestly,  I could hardly put it down! I loved having the story unfold through the various POVs, and the characters were all lavishly drawn and intriguing. I've seen lots of comparisons to Gone Girl, and I think that's pretty accurate (minus the graphic scenes). HIghly recommended as a psychological thriller.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce.
The story: Harold Fry, a retired man in his 60s, receives a letter from an old friend who is dying. Next thing he knows, he's started on a walking journey to see that friend. He believes that as long as he walks, she will continue to live. As he walks, he begins to remember various scenes from his life: his childhood, his early marriage, fatherhood. Back home, his wife has a similar inward pilgrimage. Harold and Maureen begin putting aside 20 years of animosity toward each other and wonder how they got so far off track—and if they can ever return.
Me: Oh. My. Goodness. This book (our June book club read) is astounding. I read it in about three sittings, in spite of having a billion other things to do, because it was hard to put down. I love everything about the book: the characters, the setting, the masterful way the author reveals the story. There were all kinds of surprises, and a few times I thought the book was going to take a turn I really didn't want; but in the end it was wrapped up beautifully. Such a great story of redemption, the power of love and memory, and that it's never too late—for anything. Highly recommended!

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Books Read in May

After You by JoJo Moyes.
The story: This is the sequel to the popular soon-to-be-a-major-motion-picture Me Before You— the story of a woman who falls in love with a quadriplegic. Louisa trudges on with her life, which is interrupted with all kinds of surprises and twists.
Me: I can't really say much about it, as I don't want to spoil Me Before You for those who haven't read it. This was a decent sequel, and I'd definitely recommend it for those who read the first one. If you haven't read the first one, this will make no sense.

The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley.
The story: This novel is geared toward early young-adult readers, but I think anyone would appreciate it. Ada is 10-year-old and has never left her hellish home. She has a clubfoot, which her abusive, slovenly mother considers to be the mark of the devil. The mother tells people—and Ada— that Ada is an idiot. Ada's only touch with the outside world is through her younger brother, Jamie. When WWII looms and London is certain to be bombed, Ada and Jamie evacuate, against their mother's wishes, to the countryside with the other children. They are introduced to a completely foreign world with Susan, their foster mother, and Ada learns that she is a person of tremendous value.
Me: I loved this novel. I'm a big fan of WWII era novels and redemption stories and happy endings. This one has all three and is told simply and beautifully. I loved reading Jamie's and Ada's discoveries about themselves and the world. Susan was also a wonderful character, and readers can't help but root for her as she learns how to love again. Highly recommended for all ages.

Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me: A Memoir of Sorts by Ian Morgan Cron.
The story: Ian's home life is a wreck. His parents, once beautiful people who hobnobbed with Hollywood, have fallen into the pit of despair because of his father's alcoholism. From a mansion to a tiny apartment, the family, of which Ian is the youngest and last at home, disintegrates. Ian actively despises his father, who just looks like a pathetic drunk to him. At 16, Ian discovers that his father is actually a CIA agent—one who was once actually brilliant at his job. This discovery in some ways reshapes his image of his father, but Ian never gets what he really needs: a father who acknowledges and loves him as a son. Inevitably, Ian also turns to drugs and alcohol to numb the pain, insisting that he is not like his father. This is Ian's story of struggle and ultimately triumph—although I'm sure the story continues today.
Me: I am a big fan of a well-written memoir. Cron is a fabulous writer. He's poetic and honest, although a bit disjointed at times. I can accept that, though, because his life was so disjointed. Highly recommended if you like memoirs.

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger. 
The story: During the summer when Frank Drum is 13 years old, there are 5 deaths in his  small hometown in Minnesota. Looking back as a middle-aged man on that summer, Frank remembers all the vivid details and tells the story as part mystery but mostly as a coming-of-age, loss-of-innocence story. This has somewhat of a To Kill a Mockingbird feel to it, a little bit of Stand By Me and even Our Town, sorta. Krueger is a wonderful storyteller, and I was immediately immersed in the novel.
Me: I absolutely loved this book. I read it in an evening and a day, putting aside all the other things I was supposed to get done on that particular day. I really loved everything about it: the characters, the story, the setting, the narrator's voice, Krueger's prose, the mystery, the sadness, the joy. It was truly a wonderfully written story of loss and forgiveness and healing. Highly recommended!

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Books Read in April

One Plus One by JoJo Moyes
The story: Jess is a single mom raising a brilliant, quirky daughter as well as her ex-husband's teenage son. She works hard as a housecleaner/bartender and barely has enough money to feed the kids, much less send her daughter to the exclusive private school that has offered her a nearly full scholarship for her math skills. And then she crosses paths with Ed, a multimillionaire who is about to lose everything. The four of them accidentally embark on a journey to get to the Math Olympiad and end up becoming a family.
Me: This was a fun book. It's a beach read. Nothing terribly amazing, just fun and happy for the most part. Great for summer!

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah.
The story: French sisters Vianne and Isabelle, daughters raised by an emotionally cold father, have approached life completely differently. Vianne is careful, comfortable in her marriage, but fearful; Isabelle, 10 years younger, is impetuous, rebellious, and reckless. When the Nazis invade France, they must both make impossible choices. Vianne's husband is drafted, and she and her young daughter must survive without food or money—and with a German captain living with them. Isabelle joins the Resistance and risks her life daily to save others.
Me: I loved this epic tale of survival during World War II. Isabelle gets more attention; her choices are flashier and more dramatic. But Vianne is the character I can identify with more: the one who does anything she can to provide for her family, the one who doesn't know how strong she is until she is forced to protect those she loves— the one who sometimes makes bad decisions because she doesn't understand how cruel people can be. I am fascinated with WWII stories, largely because there are so many aspects of the war to explore: soldiers on all sides, families and individuals in all kinds of circumstances, the home front, the Holocaust, the Japanese-American experience, the unsung heroes, post-war, etc. And while I've read similar stories, The Nightingale takes a fresh look at how two small people can make a huge difference in a war that encompassed the whole world. Highly recommended.

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks.
The story: The Zombie Wars are over—what really happened? This is the history of the Zombie Wars as told by various key players as well as regular people—all survivors of the unthinkable. Around the world, various governments, families, and individuals handled the zombie attacks in different ways. These are their stories of survival, pieced together in interview form.
Me: Meh. I found the interview style of the book to be tedious and confusing. I found myself constantly turning back a page or two, wondering whose POV I was currently reading. I should say that I love zombie movies and shows; I just didn't enjoy the style of this book. I would have loved reading a regular novel chronicling the events, but this left me mostly just feeling meh

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
Multiple re-read of my favorite novel. With only one exception, this gets the "book of the year" award from my literature class.
Other posts here on TKAM:
• My Favorite Ever.
Happy 50th to TKAM

Our Town by Thornton Wilder.
Re-read of a wonderful play. My high school students absolutely loved this play! Although it's a portrayal of small-town life in the early 1900s, my kids found it to be both universal and contemporary. Highly recommended reading, even if you've seen the play.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Books Read in March

March was a month of extraordinarily enjoyable books. If every month were like this one for reading, I would never get anything done. Ever. And yet… I only hope that April brings as many fantastic reads.

 Me Before You by JoJo Moyes.
The Story: Although she’s in her late 20s, Louisa takes her very ordinary life day-by-day. She really has no goals or plans for the future. She’s happy with the status quo, which includes living with her parents, her sister, and her baby nephew; continuing her long-term, comfortable though dull relationship with Patrick; and working at the coffee shop. And then the coffee shop closes, and she has to find a new job. She answers an ad for a companion for a quadriplegic, a job for which she is terribly unqualified. She knows nothing about medical care and nothing about the world that once belonged to Will. She’s never left her tiny English village; he traveled in the world of millionaires, seeking extreme adventure whenever he wasn’t closing multimillion dollar business deals. Will is trapped by his paralyzed body, depressed, angry, and suicidal. Louisa finds him rude and cold, but she desperately needs the money. Eventually, they learn to respect and depend on each other, and ultimately they fall in love. But is their love enough to convince Will that life is worth living?
Me: This was our March book club pick, partly because the movie is coming out soon, and it made for great discussion. I must admit that I never before considered what it would be like to live as a quadriplegic. I’m not convinced that Will’s argument was valid: he insisted that his life as a quadriplegic was worse than many other people’s because he lived for high adventure. He was really kind of a selfish jerk. Louisa notes that he never would have even noticed her in his old life—that she would have been part of the woodwork.  The book was full of topics for discussion. Moyes probably tried to encompass too many subjects and used too many stereotypes, but she knows how to write a great page-turner. We’re looking forward to the movie in June!

The Story: The story takes place during World War II in France and Germany. Marie-Laure has been blind since childhood. Her father, the locksmith for the Museum of National History in Paris, takes tender care of her. Because he wanted Marie-Laure to have some independence, he constructed a miniature replica of their neighborhood so that she could memorize each twist and turn, eventually learning to navigate the real neighborhood. Their lives are happy enough until they are forced to flee Nazi-occupied Paris and move in with her great-uncle, who suffers from agoraphobia brought on my PTSD, to Saint-Malo in Normandy. Werner grew up in a German orphanage and is discovered by the Hitler Youth to be a genius at electronics. He is forced to track the Resistance movement. He is disgusted at his part in the war but is too weak to take a stand, which disgusts him even more. Eventually his story converges with Marie-Laure’s, and the results are unforgettable.
Me: Ahhhh. Now this was a beautifully, masterfully written book. I like a good sentimental plot-driven novel now and then, I’ll admit. But what I really love are beautifully written books with a poetic bent to them— books that make me ache with the sadness and the goodness in the world, with the wonder at how people survive terrible, true ordeals. This is a story of survival, of just how good people can be in the darkest of situations. This was a great month of reading, but this was by far the best of the reading list and will no doubt be a contender for my #1 spot this year.

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart.
The Story: Cadence Sinclair, age 18, begins the story: "Welcome to the beautiful Sinclair family. No one is a criminal. No one is an addict. No one is a failure. The Sinclairs are athletic, tall, and handsome. We are old-money Democrats. Our smiles are wide, our chins square, and our tennis serves aggressive. It doesn’t matter if divorce shreds the muscles of our hearts so that they will hardly beat without a struggle. It doesn’t matter if trust-fund money is running out; if credit card bills go unpaid on the kitchen counter. It doesn’t matter if there’s a cluster of pill bottles on the bedside table. It doesn’t matter if one of us is desperately, desperately in love. So much in love that equally desperate measures must be taken. We are Sinclairs. No one is needy. No one is wrong. We live, at least in the summertime, on a private island off the coast of Massachusetts. Perhaps that is all you need to know.” But, of course, there is a lot more to know beneath the surface—more than Cadence can possibly remember. Every summer of her whole life, Cadence and her cousins spend the summer on their family complex on Beechwood Island. They call themselves the Liars: Cadence, Mirren, Johnny, and Gat. They are the privileged children of a privileged family, rich and coddled and completing unraveling. Something happened the summer that Cadence was 15, but a traumatic brain injury prevents her from remembering. The novel moves in and out of her memory, flashing back from summer 18 to various summers, puzzling especially over summer 15. It’s a coming-of-age story of young love, family secrets, and carelessness.
Me: I whipped through this young adult novel in an afternoon or two. I seriously could not stop reading it. Lockhart is a beautiful writer: poetic and oh-so-lovely with powerful language and vivid images.  I had absolutely no idea what was coming and had to go back and read several chapters to see what clues I might have missed. I almost didn’t read this book because of the cheesy description: “beautiful, privileged, damaged. We are the Sinclairs.” But I am so glad I did. The writing was beautiful and the story riveting. Great for adults and older teens.

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
The story: Victoria is a lost soul. She’s just aged out of the foster care system, and, at 18, is ready to live on her own. She is tough, distrustful, and angry except when it comes to flowers. During one year of her young life, she lived with Renata, a woman who taught her the language of flowers: that yarrow, for example, is a cure for a broken heart; that winter cherry indicates deception; that a wisteria stands for welcome. In a lifetime of foster care, this year was the only one in which Victoria was truly loved and accepted, and so, because it’s the only thing Victoria knows how to do, she sabotages her future as Renata’s daughter and heads back into the foster care system. Upon her emancipation at 18, she slowly begins to trust herself and trust people as she discovers that knowing the language of flowers can change lives.  She meets Grant, a young man who also understands flowers, and together they begin healing and restoring their brokenness.
Me: This was a fascinating book. I loved the lesson on the language of flowers and the thought of what carefully chosen flowers can do for people and relationships. (Bonus: Victoria’s “Dictionary of Flowers” is included at the end of the book.) I thought this was a fantastic portrayal of the challenges of foster care, for the child with an attachment disorder, for the social worker, and for foster parents. Victoria sabotages her happiness over and over again because she considers herself so unworthy of love, not because she wants to hurt other people. Her story is handled with tenderness but without romanticizing her future and the lengthy healing process. And I loved the charter of Renata, the woman who loved Victoria as a daughter. Highly recommended—but warning: you’ll want to have flowers in your house all the time, and you’ll wonder what they are saying about you.

The story: The novel tells of two young people whose lives become intertwined. the sections switch between Coralie, the mermaid girl, and Eddie, the finder. Coralie’s father is the owner of The Museum of Extraordinary Things in Coney Island in the early 1900s. He is a collector of unusual things, like a dwarf albino alligator, and of unusual people: Siamese twins, a wolf-man, the Butterfly girl, the bird lady. Coralie is unusual too: she has webbed fingers, which she keeps hidden always beneath white gloves. On her tenth birthday, Coralie’s father presents her with her destiny: she is to be the museum’s “human mermaid.” For a while, she becomes the star of the museum, but then things change.
Eddie, born Ezekiel, is a young Jewish man who has renounced— or tried to renounce— his faith and his name. As a child, he and his father escaped their Ukrainian village during a pogrom and made it to Brooklyn, where they are employed as tailors in a factory. Eddie, full of anger at their circumstances, strikes out on his own in a business he things his father would be ashamed of: he works for a “fortune teller.” His job is to track down lost people, errant spouses, missing children. He is good at his job, and for years he mingles with the dregs of society, listening to “loathsome” tales and encountering all kinds of things that a young boy should never see. But in his late teens he encounters a photographer who changes the course of his life, and he quits finding lost people on seedy streets and instead begins finding beauty through photography.
Me: I loved this novel. There are some graphic parts in Coralie’s story that are truly horrifying and difficult to read. Her father is an unscrupulous monster who will do anything for money. But Coralie is a precious, lovely character with an innocent heart and a great capacity for love. Eddie is a rough character at times, but his heart ultimately matches Coralie’s. There are so many kind and compassionate characters in this novel that her father’s cruelty is ultimately defeated. I think I can say that without giving away too much of the book. This was a fascinating story. There were parts that were extremely disturbing, but the triumph of good over evil is clear and satisfying.

Learning to Swim by Sara J. Henry.
The story: On a ferry ride, a young woman named Troy sees a child in the water, presumably fallen from a passing ferry. Without thinking, she dives into the water and rescues the child. The little boy seems to be an orphan at first, but gradually the story comes out that he was kidnapped. Troy finds his rich father eventually, and she takes the little boy back to him. The mystery, then, becomes finding the kidnappers. Somehow, Troy takes this into her own hands to do. Ultimately, she does discover the mystery and nearly dies doing so. Yawn.
Me: Meh. I liked the narrator/main character, Troy. I liked the little boy and his Dad. But the whole story just fell kind of flat for me. I kept thinking that something really exciting and surprising was going to happen as I slogged through details of Troy cleaning and repairing her bike, teaching computer skills, and shopping. I was looking forward to that "Ah! I didn't see that coming" moment, as I wondered why this rich father and the police weren't able to locate his son during his 5 months of captivity. Instead, the story became laughable when all is revealed. I think I actually shook my head in astonishment, and I know I rolled my eyes. It was all so contrived and so neatly wrapped up in about 10 pages at the end. What?? I had to go back and skim a few chapters to see if I'd missed a bit of foreshadowing or something. Nope. Apparently this is the first in a series featuring Troy, and I will not be reading the series.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

My Ever-Growing TBR List (2016)

*Indicates books added in 2016

41 False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers by Janet Malcolm
Alena by Rachel Pastan
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (read 3/16)
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
* At the Water's Edge by Sara Gruen
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)
* Bastards by Mary Anna King
Before the Storm by Diane Chamberlain
The Beginner's Goodbye by Anne Tyler
Behind the Burqa by Sulima and Hala (reviewed by Semicolon)
Bellman & Black: A Ghost Story by Diane Setterfield.
Blackberry Winter by Sarah Jio
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
The Children Act by Ian McEwan
China Dolls by Lisa See
Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee. 
Close Your Eyes by Amanda Eye Ward
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami
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)
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
*The Good Girl by Mary Kubica (Read and reviewed 2016)
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)
* I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
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 (read and reviewed 5/16)
Keeping the House by E. Baker
* Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh(read 3/16)
Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones (reviewed by Bookeywookey)
Last Days of Summer by Steve Kluger (reviewed at Thoughts of Joy)
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. 
Lila by Marianne Robinson
Little Altars Everywhere by R. Wells
* The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life by Rod Dreher
Living End by L. Samson
A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True by Brigid Pasulka (reviewed at The Lost Entwife)
Lost Children of Wilder by N. Bernstein
Loving Frank by N. Horan
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri.
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
Mad Girls in Love by M. West
*A Man Called Ove: A Novel by Fredrik Backman (read and reviewed 8/16)
Man without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut
Many Sleepless Nights
by Lee Gutkind
* Mapmaker's Children by Sarah McCoy 
Mariner's Compass by E. Fowler
The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok
Mercy Falls by WK Krueger
Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
Minding the South by J. Reed
Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee by Marja Mills
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)
Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman (read 3/16)

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier (Reviewed by Reading to Know)
The Ninth Wife by Amy Stolls
Not without My Daughter
by B. Mahmoody
The Orchid House by Lucinda Riley
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)
A Pool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler.
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
A Quilt for Christmas  by Sandra Dallas
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.
Rise and Shine by Anna Quindlen
Rises the Night
by C. Gleason
Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein
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
 The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Secret Keeper by Mitali Perkins (Reviewed by Word Lily)
Seven Loves by Trueblood
* Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
She Got Up Off the Couch: And Other Heroic Acts from Mooreland, Indiana by Haven Kimmel
Slaves, Women & Homosexuals by William J. Webb
 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 (read and reviewed 2016)
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
*The Summer Before the War: A Novel by Helen Simonson (read and reviewed 2016)
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
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 War That Saved My Life (read and reviewed 5/16)
The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
*We Never Asked for Wings by Vanessa Diffenbaugh (read and reviewed 7/16)
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart (read 3/16)
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 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