Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Lost Lake by Sarah Addison Allen

The release date of Sarah Addison Allen's newest book, Lost Lake , is only three weeks away and I can tell you that it does not disappoint.  Thank you Goodreads for the Advance Readers' Edition.  Even if I hadn't won this book, I would have bought it right away.  If you haven't had the pleasure of an introduction to Ms. Allen's work, now is the time to change that.  Her characters are rich and filled with magic.  These books may just be the thing to help you through the post holiday doldrums.
Lost Lake  follows Kate, a newly widowed mother of a young daughter as she tries to find herself after a year of mourning.  She takes her daughter Devin to visit the lake resort of her Great-Aunt Eby whom she has not seen since she was a child herself.  It is here that Kate fully wakes up to the world around her, Eby realizes how important she still is to the people in her small town and in her newly reunited family, and Devin discovers a magic alligator intent upon saving them all.
I loved the flashbacks to Eby's 1962 honeymoon in Paris and how in love she and her husband George were.  "He could have had his pick of beautiful belles....But he'd loved only Eby.  You didn't need a mirror to tell you that you were beautiful when you had proof like that."  Kate doesn't have the same feelings regarding her young marriage, but she is still heartbroken at its loss.  Devin is a free-spirited child with her own sense of style.  "She loved wearing stripes with polka dots, and tutus, and pink and green socks with orange patent-leather shoes.  Devin could[n't] care less what people thought about her."
And as in any family, there is drama and conflict.  Kate's mother-in-law, Cricket, swoops in to take over after the death of her son.  She has very specific plans for Kate and Devin and those plans certainly don't include tutus or dress up clothes or butterfly wings.  She orchestrates the sale of the business that Kate had run with her husband as well as the house Kate had inherited from her mother so that Kate and Devin can move in with her.  Eby's extended honeymoon was seen as an escape as she and George tried to avoid Eby's family's feelings of entitlement to George's money.  When they must finally return home, it is not to the welcome she had imagined.
I always enjoy reading books by Sarah Addison Allen and I eagerly anticipate each release.  This is the first book that she has published after being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011.  Her readers are certainly grateful to have her back.  I will leave you with this one last quote from which I think we can all learn:
"The trick to getting through life, she'd told him, is not to hate it when it isn't exactly how you think it should be."  

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Roomies by Sara Zarr and Tara Altenbrando

This book, Roomies by Sara Zarr and Tara Altenbrando, came to me via NetGalley.  It is currently available as a free Kindle book in preview from Amazon here.  You really can't beat a free book, can you?  While I am not exactly as a 35-year-old mother of two the intended audience for this book, I really did like it.  It was a quick read and I found the characters likable and realistic.  Elizabeth, or EB as she is called, and Lauren are strangers living on opposite coasts and have been notified that they will be roommates when they head for their freshman year at Berkley.  EB emails Lauren in an attempt to get to know her new "roomie" before the big day in two months time.  The emails continue and they learn a great deal about one another. 
This is not just a book of emails between two girls, it is a novel exploring the difficulties of change, especially those facing a newly adult young woman leaving home for the first time.  The authors take the reader through the full gamut of emotions- wanting to leave while wanting to stay, breakups with boyfriends and best friends, beginning a new life without being sure about the old one.  The book also explores the choices these young women make.  To drink at a party or not?  To have sex or to wait?  These are situations common in Young Adult literature and in young adult lives, but in Roomies these topics are not approached too lightly or with too much judgment.  Not everyone drinks and not everyone has sex and the characters each have lots of reasons for their decisions.  I would recommend this book to an older high school student or even to another mom like me who might be interested in reminiscing about her college days.  It was fun and I enjoyed it.  I hope you will, too.

Let's Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson

It is hard to believe the statement that truth is stranger than fiction, but in Jenny Lawson's memoir, Let's Pretend This Never Happened  the truth is stranger and much more hilarious.  I am not exaggerating when I say that by the end of the introduction, my abs had already had a serious workout.  I really was sore the next day.  And I think I drove my husband a little crazy with the very noisy outbursts of laughter.  Seriously- a "dear sweater"?  I cannot even imagine.  Honestly, this is exactly what I needed after my last, very disappointing read. 
I loved the rambley (it's a word, I just made it one), convoluted nature of this book.  While it is essentially a collection of blog posts, the reader feels like she is having lunch with a friend- an unbelievable funny, slightly off-center friend that she might be nervous about introducing to other friends and certainly her children, but a friend none the less.  See look!  The rambliness (you're liking my new word, aren't you?) is contagious!  To tell the truth, I did find that a few of the emails I wrote while I was reading this book did tend to take on Lawson's voice a tiny bit.  I also love that on the very first page, Lawson acknowledges that she is sure to offend everyone with something in her book and she apologizes for it right away.  She is a little crass and the language may be offensive to some (I'm wondering if anyone has counted the number of times she uses the F-word in this book because I'm guessing it just may top four digits), but if you can get past all that you are going to love this book.
Lawson begins with her childhood in West Texas and what her family life was like.  She then takes us through meeting her husband and then into their life as a married couple and later as parents.  She shies away from nothing, the good, the bad, the ugly, and the crazy.  Lawson suffered multiple miscarriages and takes her readers through that difficult time.  She also struggles with anxiety and while making clear that mental illness is a serious issue, she presents it with humor. 
I really do recommend this book, especially if you don't mind a little crazy mixed in with your over-the-top hysterical.  At our book club meeting, one member read one chapter aloud because it was her favorite and she was nearly unintelligible because she was laughing so hard.  We decided that the whole book would be amazing as an adult read-aloud book.  Get a group of girls together (enjoy some adult beverages if that's your thing) and take turns reading it to each other.  Everyone's laughter makes it so much better.  You can also follow Jenny Lawson's blog here which is amazingly funny and how I was initially introduced to her.  And you can follow her on Pinterest.  You know that is going to be unlike any other board you follow!

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Allegiant by Veronica Roth

How much does the ending of a book influence whether or not you liked that book?  I try not to make that the deciding factor, but I am discovering that may be impossible for me.  Remember when I whined about the ending of These Is My Words by Nancy E. Turner?  I loved that book, but the ending made me angry, not just because I had come to care about the characters, but because I didn't understand why an author would choose to take such an important character away, both from the readers and the other characters.  Yes, yes.  I know it's fiction, but you know that's not the point.  You and I both know we read because we love immersing ourselves into the lives of these characters and allowing them to become real to us. 
In Allegiant  by Veronica Roth, the third and final book in the Divergent series, Ms. Roth makes what I am sure were some very difficult decisions.  Writing is a complicated process and sometimes characters take the writer on a journey he or she never expected.  I can understand that.  I can also understand that a writer often has very good reasons for his or her actions.  You can even read Ms. Roth's explanations here if you would like, but please be aware that the spoilers are significant.

So what can I tell you about this book without dwelling too much on the ending (too late!)?  Well, I will tell you that even before I got to that part, I was a little disappointed in the track of the story.  It just felt like it was missing something, depth maybe.  At one point, I really felt like perhaps the author had gotten off on a tangent.  Of course that could have all been brought to a resolution that would have been wonderful and I would have been thrilled with the twists and turns if it had all turned out in the end.

Okay, it's time to face it.  I am one of those nerds who needs a happy ending.  I don't expect everyone to live happily ever after, but I do think that someone should be happy.  That's why I read fiction, after all.  There is enough unhappiness in the world and I just want to escape for a bit, go on an adventure, be saddened or angered that a secondary or tertiary character dies and then smile through tears when the main characters go on to live happy lives.  Is that too much to ask? 

I am, of course, not alone in my feelings about this book.  Twitter and the blogosphere had fits about it.  I saw one tweet that said, "I feel like I should wear a badge today saying 'I finished #Allegiant.  Hug me.'"  I liked that one.  One reader said, "I feel betrayed by the author."  Another claimed that she would never reread this series again because, while she loved the first two books, they have been ruined for her.  Forever.  From what I understand, there have even been death threats.  Now that is craziness.  Let's take a breath people.

So what part will this play with the success of the film being released in March?  That is a good question, but my guess is that six months is just the right amount of time for people too come to terms with the end of the series.  Have you read it yet?  What did you think?  Do you need a book to have a happy ending to feel it was worth your time?  What do you think about the fan reaction (excepting of course the death threats- we all know those people are nut jobs)?

Divergent/ Insurgent by Veronica Roth- Reread

In anticipation of the release of Allegiant  by Veronica Roth, I reread the first two books in the series, Divergent and Insurgent.  You can read my original reviews of them here and here.  While I loved these books the first time around, I was less enamored in the reread.  They were still good, but maybe not as good as I had initially thought.  The first movie in the series comes out in March and the previews look good so my hopes are high.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

I love smart people, smart girls in particular (hence the blog name) and I love the main character in the new book I'm reading.  Counting by 7s  by Holly Goldberg Sloan tells the story of Willow Chance who is not just smart.  She's a genius.  A weird, awkward, unusual genius and I wish I were just like her.

Willow doesn't have many friends.  Any, really, and as she begins middle school, she wants very much to make a good first impression.  She does her research but most of what she can find makes it sound as though all teenagers are drug- addicted, delinquents on the fast track to teen pregnancy and prison.  This turns out to not be all that helpful.  She tries her best, but the day a standardized test is passed out proves to be her turning point.  She finishes the test in less than twenty minutes and is accused a few days later of cheating as she has gotten every single question correct.  She doesn't know how to defend herself and is sent to a school counselor who is horrible at his job.  While in this office, Willow meets the people who will change her life forever.

This is a wonderful, darling book that only took me two days to read because I could not put it down.  I may have even hidden in my closet to finish it.  We do what we have to do, don't we?  One of the things I love so much about Middle Grade fiction is that it is what I think Young Adult fiction used to be, or maybe what I think it should be.  In YA, the characters are all teenagers, but they don't seem to realize it.  They behave much more maturely and are in situations that I feel are sometimes far above their capability and it is often something that I wouldn't necessarily want my younger teenager to read.  We all know that these books trickle down to younger readers so I appreciate that there is good fiction out there now (and I do believe it is getting better all the time) that I would feel comfortable handing over to my pre-teen or younger teen when I have one.  Truth be told, this may be my new favorite genre.  Please read this book.  You will fall in love with Willow Chance and watching the people around her change is inspiring.  I hope you love it as much as I do.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

I have been in a book club for a few years now and I love it.  I am also kind of proud of the fact that I have never not finished a book for book club.  Even when the book is horrible or life gets crazy, even if that is the only book I read all month, I always finish the book club book.  This month I almost didn't make it and not because I almost ran out of time.  I almost didn't finish because I almost couldn't resist the temptation to quit and toss the book back into the nearest library bin.  Who picked this one anyway?  Oh, wait...it was me.
The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe was on many, many lists recently of great book club reads.  Usually when it is my turn to pick the book club book, I have a whole list of books that I cannot wait to read with my book club ladies.  For whatever reason this month I just couldn't find any thing that really captured my attention that I thought everyone would enjoy.  You see, our book club is going through a few growing pains as three of our seven members have moved out of state and one more has her house for sale as we speak (me again).  It is really hard to have a book club meeting from a distance even with all the wonderful technological advances at our disposal.  I wanted something everyone would want to read so I went out trolling the interwebs, looking at book recommendation lists.  I came up with this one.
True, it is about the author's mother who is dying of pancreatic cancer, but she is in her seventies so I hoped that would help make it less sad.  It is also about the book club that developed between this admirable woman and her son.  They discuss books as they wait at each of her doctor appointments and chemo treatments.  This book is also interesting in that it does a thorough job of describing a cancer patient's struggles and what his or her loved ones can expect in such a situation.  It provided a good amount of advice to those grieving someone not yet gone.  I believed all the reviews I read about how wonderful this book is and so I made it my pick.  I started early because it was a slightly larger book than some of our recent books and it's a good thing I did.  It was just such a slow read.
The author loves his mother very much and she is a remarkable woman who has spent much of her life working on various charitable organizations to benefit refugees.  Where I stumbled is in the amount of details provided by the author.  I understand that partially he is writing this book for himself and his mother's family and friends to remember her, but sometimes it is just too much.  Also, while the books they pick to read are certainly high quality literature, I don't think there was even one that I have read.  Because of this, I had a difficult time connecting to the stories.
I was about halfway through the book when I realized that not only may I not finish the book, but it was unlikely that all of the other members of our book club would read it to the end.  I was ready to quit at that point.  Why force myself to finish a book I wasn't enjoying when there are so many other books out there that I can't wait to read?  Well, because that is what we do in book club.  After talking to one friend who was really enjoying the book, I knew I needed to push through.  Luckily for me, it picked up speed a bit in the second half.  I can't say I would recommend this book, but it does have value if you can make it through it.  One statement that really got me was this one:
"...This was not even a particularly big offense in the pantheon of book club crimes, where the worst sin one can commit was not to read the book in question- or, even worse, to lie about having read the book when, in fact, you'd simply seen the movie."

And so I finished.  And that's all I have to say about that.

The Diamond of Darkhold by Jeanne DuPrau

The final book in the Ember series is The Diamond of Darkhold by Jeanne DuPrau.  I had to wait a bit for it to come in at the library, but I read it very quickly once it was finally in my hands.  In this final installment, Lean and Doon travel back to Ember to see if there is anything there waiting for them.  Doon is convinced that the Creators left something specifically for the people of Ember to help them once they emerged from their home into the real world.  Lena is doubtful that they will find anything like that, but hopes to bring back any leftover food, clothing or medicine that can be scavenged from the town.  Of course, their trip does not go smoothly.  It seems someone else has discovered the city of Ember and laid claim to all that it contains.  Lena and Doon  have once again gone out to save the world on their own and this time they need help. 
While far better than The Prophet of Yonwood, this finale to the series was a bit of a let down.  After the excitement of the first book and the interesting social parallels in the second book, the third felt like a huge miss to me and this fourth book, though much better, still felt like it was missing something.  The story was good, but I think the first book is still my favorite.  This series was a wonderful introduction into the world of dystopian literature for a younger reader.  It wasn't too scary or dark (no pun intended) and the stories all resolved nicely.  The best part of this series was reading it along with my son and discussing it with him.  That, you just can't beat.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Prophet of Yonwood by Jeanne DuPrau

The Prophet of Yonwood by Jeanne DuPrau is the third Book of Ember.  This installment is a prequel to The City of Ember.  When I read that, I thought it had a lot of potential.  I was sadly disappointed.  What is essentially wrapped up in the last chapter of this book provides all the information the reader is hoping to find.  The previous 281 pages were mostly a waste of time.  The point never seemed to be reached, the characters didn't seem to have much significance.  I kept reading hoping it would all fall together somehow, but really it all seemed like filler.  The final book rejoins Lina and Doon so I am looking forward to reading the resolution to this series.  If anyone were to ask me, I would say you could safely skip this one.  I hate to say that about a book when I am enjoying the series, but I feel like I owe it to you.

The People of Sparks by Jeanne DuPrau

The second book in the Book of Ember series is The People of Sparks by Jeanne DuPrau.  I actually had to steal this book away from my 9-year-old son.  He was reading it, but his interest had begun to wan and so he wasn't spending as much time reading it (we've all been there, haven't we?).  Once I finished The City of Ember  I didn't want to wait much longer for him to pass the book to me, so I stuck a little sticky note into his spot and took it over.  The first third of the book is a little slow, but it does pick up.  The whole time I was reading it, I kept telling him he really needed to get back into it.  Every time I would gasp or talk to the book (as I sometimes do.  What?  You don't?) he would ask what was going on.  I would just shake my head at him and tell him he would have to read it himself.  I'm a mean mom. 
In this book, Lina and Doon had discovered a new city above ground and over 400 of the residents of Ember have come with them.  These new people, the people of Sparks, are willing to help this large group of refugees, but are unsure what it will mean to their own livelihood.  Sparks is a settlement that has struggled for years and is finally enjoying a season of prosperity, but how can they feed and house so many more people?  A child reading this is unlikely to see the political parallels to our own world, but an adult would be hard-pressed not to see it.  This is an immigration story in miniature.  The people from Ember are escaping a dying world, they have skills that helped them in their previous home, but they are not good at many of the new jobs required of them in Sparks.  The people of Sparks begin to feel resentful of all the help they are required to give.  Tensions flare up on both sides with a leader from each group hoping to incite violence if that is what is necessary to gain the upper hand. 
There are lots of "learning moments" in this book.  I'll present you with just this one.  When one character is angered by the way he is treated by a stranger, his companion explains it to him this way:
"You turned that crazy old guy into an enemy in less than two minutes.  You did it.  You've done it over and over, I've seen you:  you approach people like an enemy and bam! they turn into one, whether they were to begin with or not."
On the brink of another war not unlike what destroyed the world in the first place, a solution must be found.  There is much here to be learned about what causes war and what actions can possibly, hopefully prevent it.  Forgive the spoiler, but I love the resolution at the end:
"The main thing is this: we will refuse to be each other's enemies. We will renounce violence, which is so easy to start but so hard to control.  We will build a place where we can all live in peace.  If we hold to that, everything is possible."
Idealistic?  Of course, but isn't that what fiction is supposed to create?  And yet if we can give our children a peek into what is possible, they just may turn it into reality in their lifetime.  So far I am really enjoying this series.  Read it and share it with your children.  I think you'll both like it.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Dark Triumph by Robin LaFevers

This week I read Dark Triumph  by Robin LaFevers.  Remember when I said that Grave Mercy is listed as YA lit and really shouldn't be?  Well, Dark Triumph  really shouldn't be for young adults.  This was a great book and I couldn't put it down, but it goes so far into some dark subjects that I can't imagine my teenager reading.  In Grave Mercy  the main character is Ismae, but in Dark Triumph  we follow Sybella as the fight for the duchess continues.  Usually the second book in a trilogy is considered a "bridge book" where the author has to introduce more information and story building to get to the finale of the series.  I love that LaFevers chooses instead to explore other characters.  This keeps the reader engaged and still moves the story along. 
In this installment, we learn how Sybella came to be at the convent and the horrible life she has escaped.  Unfortunately for her, Sybella has been sent back to the very people who made the first fourteen years of her life such torture.  In this important household, she is able to convince her monstrous father that she is loyal to him all while watching and waiting for a sign that she may be the one to end his life.  Her frustration grows and her faith withers as the wait seems to never come to an end.  I truly wish I could tell you more, but it would ruin too much of the suspense that LaFevers has worked so hard to create.  The third and final book will be released Spring 2014 and I am anxiously awaiting more news.  If you need something to capture your imagination and if you enjoy books with strong female characters, these are just what you need.  Really.  No, really.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

I always cringe when I hear a parent say to his or her child, "There are no such thing as monsters."  I cringe because as adults in truth we know that there are monsters in the world.  They may not be hiding under our beds or in our closets, but there are monsters out there just the same.
In A Monster Calls  by Patrick Ness, Conor who is thirteen-years-old is being visited by a monster.  His monster is the yew tree behind his house come to life.  He is sure he must be dreaming when the monster calls his name, when it smashes a hole in the side of his house, when it tells him stories he doesn't understand.  He must be dreaming because monsters aren't real, right?
Conor's mother is sick.  She doesn't have a cold or a sore throat, she is the kind of sick that steals away her strength, her energy, and her hair.  Conor wants her to get better and he believes she will, but he is haunted by a nightmare that the author won't share with his readers until the very end.  His nightmare is where the real monster lives and Conor couldn't be more afraid.
It has been well established here that I am a crier, however today I am in real danger of dehydration. We know that a parent's illness is hard on a child, but this book explores what that must feel like to the child.  Children become afraid and telling them to be brave in a situation that even the adults don't have enough courage to face is unfair.  Children become angry and they should be allowed to express it.  Children feel isolated when the adults become too wrapped up in their own grief to help that child navigate so difficult a road.  Acting as if everything will be okay, as if there is nothing wrong is not helpful in the least.  In the end, it is the truth that helps Conor face his monster.
I'm not sure I can tell you who should read this book.  It is written for children, but I suppose as a parent I prefer to keep my children from knowing about the real monsters in the world, at least as long as I can.  Adults will benefit from the reading, if for nothing other than the reminder that children have feelings as complex as any adult.  A Monster Calls  is beautifully written and the illustrations are dark and a little scary, just as they should be.  Grief and loss are complicated topics and they are handled very well here.  I would love to hear if you read this one.  I would love to hear how it touches you.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

Assassin nuns.  Yep, that's the phrase that caught my attention.  And how could it not?  Grave Mercy  by Robin LaFevers is the first in the His Fair Assassin trilogy.  A young girl, Ismae, is forced to marry a brute by her abusive father, but when her groom realizes he has been tricked into the marriage, he beats her and leaves her for dead.  Ismae is rescued by nuns, but not the kind of nuns you would expect.  This is Brittany in 1485 and while the Catholic church is building a larger presence, the people still worship the old saints that have been in their traditions for hundreds of years.  Ismae is taken to the convent of St. Mortain, also known as the god of Death.  The sisters in the convent serve Death by killing those he wishes dead.  Ismae is then trained in all the ways to kill a man including weapons, hand to hand combat and poisons.  She is also trained in all that she will need to know to do the Saint's bidding covertly.
I sprinted through this book.  The intrigue was fantastic and while I was able to see down the road a little bit, it continued to twist and turn.  I have to admit that I was shocked to find out that this is classified as YA.  While reading this novel, it never occurred to me that it was intended for a teen audience.  The writing was complex and the subject matter not necessarily something I would encourage my teenager to read, but still I enjoyed it.  The second book is waiting for me on the library reserve shelf and I'm picking it up tomorrow!  Rather than a traditional sequel, the second book follows another of the assassins trained at the convent. 
I will leave you with one small quote from Grave Mercy:
Ismae is telling a story to the duchess' young sister and in it she says, "For death is not scary or evil or even unmerciful; it is simply death."

Monday, October 7, 2013

The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau

The City of Ember  by Jeanne DuPrau was a book that I had found while looking for a book for my 9-year-old son.  He has never been a big reader, but he needed a fiction book for a school project and I was hoping he would enjoy this one.  I was thrilled when I found him in his room engrossed in it a few days later.  He would tell me little bits about the story, but kept most of it secret because he was determined that I would enjoy it and should read it myself.  He is now halfway through the second installment in the series and it seems to have sparked something in him.  Yesterday when we were in the car for a long time, he left his iPod at home and brought his book!  GASP!  I was so excited, but I tried not to make a big deal about it.  It is a wonderful thing when a child finally discovers all the joys of reading.
But, back to The City of Ember .  I really liked it.  Lena and Doon are twelve-years-old, have finished with their education and assigned their own jobs.  Lena is a messenger who runs from one side of their city to the other, delivering spoken-word messages from person to person.  Doon works in the Pipeworks repairing the pipes that deliver water and power to the city.  Ember is a city, but it is also the entire world.  The lights come on in the morning and at night when they turn off, the entire world is black.  There is no fire and no "moveable light" so they have no way to explore the "unknown regions" outside of the reach of the large floodlights.  The excitement comes when Lena discovers a set of instructions that have been locked away in a box for longer than anyone can remember.  She suspects that they are a guide to the way out of Ember, not that she has any idea what that would mean. 
My children are far from being ready for books like The Hunger Games  or anything similar, but The City of Ember  gives just a taste of a dystopian world that isn't too scary, but it also expands their imagination about what could happen in the world.  I thought this was a fun book to read and it ended with such a wonderful cliffhanger that I can't wait for my son to finish the second book so that I can read it.  It's also really fun for me to be in a tiny book club of sorts with one of my children.  I highly recommend that!

Friday, October 4, 2013

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

I can't remember how long ago I read The Color Purple  by Alice Walker, but it was a really long time ago.  I remember enjoying the book, but I probably would have never read it again if it weren't this month's book club pick.  When I first opened the book, I read a few paragraphs and put it down again.  I really didn't want to read it because this book begins so very painfully.  It starts with Celie talking to God about being raped by her father and about losing her children and about her mother's sickness and anger.  It's awful and I just didn't want to let that in so I left it on the counter for a day or two.  But you know how I am about book club- I have to read the book.  And so I pushed through and I'm glad I did.
This book is full of darkness and sadness and of things that would make me want to give up on life, but it's also full of lightness and kindness and people who overcome the evil in their lives.  Since the book has been in publication for over thirty years, I won't worry that you haven't read it.  I love the development of the characters throughout the story arc.  Mr._____ is a horrible monster at the beginning of the book and by the end he becomes Celie's dear friend.  To me that seems so unlikely, but Ms. Walker writes it in a way that is believable.  People are complicated complex creatures and I feel like Ms. Walker lets us see that.
I have talked to people who have loved this book for decades.  I even have a dear friend who met the author and was able to get an autographed copy of this American classic.  How do you feel about it?  Is it one of your favorites?  Is it too dark for you?  When is the last time you read it?

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

Wonder  by R. J. Palacio is why I love books.  Books like this one really do have the power to make a difference in the world.  Wonder  is about a young boy named August who was born with severe facial abnormalities.  On the very first page, he puts it this way: "I won't describe what I look like.  Whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse."  That makes it sound pretty bad.  Throughout the novel the reader gets a few glimpses of August's appearance, but nothing concrete.  August has been home schooled due to all the surgeries he has needed, but he is now about to start fifth grade at a "real school."  He is confused about whether or not he wants to go to school, but feels angry that his mother is pushing him.  When he goes to tour his new school, he turns to give his mother an angry look, but then he notices that she looks even more afraid than he feels.  I can't imagine being in that mother's position.
Wonder  is told through the point of view of several people including August, his sister, some of the people he meets at his new school, and some of his sister's friends.  Unfortunately, the reality is that kids are cruel.  Sometimes they mean to be hurtful and other times their unkindness is accidental.  August meets all kinds.  The interesting thing is that August is new to his school, but he is not new to his face.  He knows what people think of him, he hears their whispers and sees their stares.  He knows what to expect and he does a pretty good job of pretending like it doesn't bother him even when it really does.
An interesting point of view was that of August's older sister, Olivia.  She is also beginning a new school as a freshman and is struggling in her own way.  Sadly, for Olivia sympathy is difficult to find.  She says, "My worst day, worst fall, worst headache, worst bruise, worst cramp, worst mean thing anyone could say has always been nothing compared to what August has been through.  This isn't me being noble, by the way:  it's just the way I know it is."  I felt like the author did an excellent job of exploring the feelings and perspectives of the other people around August.
When I say that that books like this one have the power to change the world it is because of the opportunity the reader has to gain so much in the way of compassion and empathy.  The value of reading is in learning to see the world through someone else's eyes and that can easily be done here.  August's voice is clearly that of a ten-year-old boy.  Any young reader can feel what he feels and any older reader can remember that age and also knows that sometimes we all feel like a ten-year-old.

This book should be required reading for everyone, but especially for children entering their preteen years.  Cruelty can be so easy and kindness so hard sometimes, but it is always the right thing.  Quoting J. M. Barrie, one character, the school director says, "Shall we make a new rule of life...always to try to be a little kinder than is necessary?"  The director then goes on to add, "If every single person in this room made it a rule that wherever you are, whenever you can, you will try to act a little kinder that is necessary- the world really would be a better place.  And if you do this, if you act just a little kinder than is necessary, someone else, somewhere, someday , may recognize in you, in every single one of you, the face of God."  Kindness is necessary.  Choose to be kinder.  

I applaud this book.  I give it a standing ovation.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Cruising Attitude by Heather Poole

If you have ever wanted to know what it is like to be a flight attendant, you should read Cruising Attitude  by Heather Poole.  She does an excellent job of describing all the good, bad and ugly of working a job nearly seven miles in the air.  Her subtitle really does describe it all:  Tales of Crashpads, Crew Drama, and Crazy Passengers at 35,000 feet. 
And oh, what a walk down memory lane this was.  I was a flight attendant for three years from 1998 to 2001.  Reading this book really reminded me of all the things I loved about being a flight attendant and all the things I really don't miss.  Poole begins with an in-depth description of the training process.  It is an intense six to eight weeks and as she says, "What we were taught wasn't difficult, but the program had been specifically designed to wear us down.  The airline needed to know how we might react in a number of less-than-perfect scenarios in order to give us a taste of what flight would really be like...and also as a way to get rid of those who couldn't hack it."  It was so funny to read about the "charm farm", or training facility, and how strict some of the instructors could be (lipstick must be freshly applied at all times) and how appearance was as important as all the lifesaving skills being taught.
The book then follows Poole as she leaves training and becomes a full-fledged flight attendant.  She moves to New York City, finds a crash pad filled with other flight attendants she rarely sees more than once or twice and learns to navigate her new lifestyle.  She describes friends she makes, passengers she meets, and places she visits.  Being a flight attendant is hard work and, especially at the beginning, not highly lucrative.  She quotes one fellow flight attendant this way:  "If I made as much money as passengers thought I made, worked as little as my neighbors thought I did, or had as much fun on layovers as my friends think I do, I'd have one helluva a job!"  Poole does an excellent job of explaining all the ins and outs of flying the friendly skies including FAA requirements, working reserve, learning on the job, medical emergencies, difficult and sometimes crazy passengers, and she even covers turbulence for those of you who get a little shaky when the flight gets a little bumpy. 
Poole has flown for nearly twenty years and it is obvious she loves it.  It is not a job for everyone, but it can be pretty amazing.  Just at the end of the book, she briefly mentions the events of 9/11 and how that effected her.  I share this quote:
"Most people don't have to think about  [September 11th] every time they go to work the way I do.  From the moment I step out of my shoes to go through airport security until the aircraft slides into the gate, I think about what happened to those planes.  They were my planes.  My coworkers.  My passengers."
This book was fun to read and well written.  I also highly recommend her blog.  You can find it here.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman

You know that wiped-out feeling you get just after a good solid cry?  Yeah, that's what I'm feeling right now.  I just finished The Light Between Oceans  by M. L. Stedman.  In a word, heartbreaking.  This month's book club selection started off slowly for me.  I'll be interested to see how many of the ladies finished it.  I was a little worried I wouldn't make it myself, but once I was about a quarter of the way through, it really picked up speed.  I felt that the chapter transitions in particular made it difficult to put the book down. 
A couple living on a small isolated island one hundred miles from the Australian coast discover a boat washed ashore.  Inside it are a dead man and a crying infant.  The couple, Isabelle and Tom, could have signaled to shore and had someone come get the baby.  They could have reported this most unusual circumstance, but that is not what they did.  Isabelle yearns for a child of her own and so believes God has blessed her with one indirectly.  Convincing themselves that the child's mother must have died at sea, they keep the little girl and raise her themselves.  The trouble comes when it is discovered that the baby's mother is alive and has been looking for her all this time.
What do they do?  Turn their four-year-old child over to someone she doesn't even know?  Give up the family they have finally made together?  And what of their extended families?  How will this affect an entire town?  This is not a book with a clearly defined villain, a clean cut hero.  There are many, many shades of gray, but hardly anything seems to be black and white.  Who has suffered the most?  Who stands to continue to suffer?  Whose feelings are of the greatest importance?  The birth mother?  The adoptive mother and father who have cared for and loved the child?  Is it possible or right to consider the feelings of such a little girl?
While I thought I wasn't going to care for this book, I found myself flipping pages in a hurry to find out what would happen.  And it did come very highly recommended to me.  The writing is beautiful, if a little long winded in the beginning, and I felt I could place myself in nearly every character's shoes.  I think this will be a very interesting book club discussion. 

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Beastly by Alex Flinn

The popular boy at school, the good-looking, rich boy that every girl is in love with, the conceited jerk that is cruel to everyone he deems unworthy- that is Kyle Kingsbury.  And one step too far demeaning Kendra in class sentences him to two years living as a beast.  He has two years to fall in love and to convince someone to fall in love with him.  If he fails, he will never be changed back to his former self.  Beastly by Alex Flinn is a modern retelling of Beauty and the Beast set in high school. 
I was actually pleasantly surprised with this book.  Often I am disappointed with YA Fiction and it's inability to reach deeper levels, but this one was just what I had hoped it would be.  Granted, it was a fast, light read, but it was just want I needed at the time. 
Kyle is a horrible person, but he's been given the chance to become someone better.  Of course he doesn't see it as an opportunity at first, but as he grows, he learns.  I don't worry about giving away any spoilers.  We all know this story, but it is the details that make it fun.  I like the way Flinn arranged for Lindy (Belle, for those thinking of the Disney version of this story) to come and live with Kyle.  I like that she still made her a big reader.  You know how I love Smart Girls that Read.  And Lindy's favorite book is Jane Eyre !  And I also enjoyed the way she wrote the witch that cast the curse on Kyle.  She actually makes the witch an active part of the story. 
Included in the version that I read was Lindy's Diary, the story told from Lindy's point of view. 
Usually I enjoy extras, deleted scenes and different points of view, but this one seemed a little forced.  The reader does gain a few insights into the story, but it just felt a little silly.  One quote I did enjoy:
"I don't like to think I can be bought, but if I could, this guy definitely knew the currency.  Roses and books- I could survive in these rooms forever."
I also watched the film based on the book.

By and large, this was not a great movie.  It was made for teenagers and it was even sappier than the book.  It had a lot of changes from the book.  I did like the way the filmmakers interpreted the beast's appearance.  Rather than looking like a bear/wolf/monster, Kyle skin looks as though his veins are on the outside of his skin and like his face has been slashed multiple times.  Also, his eyebrows read "Embrace the Suck" if you look closely enough.  And Mary-Kate Olsen as the witch was fantastic.  This is a great book/movie combo if you are in need of a break.  I really did like the book.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Keeping the Castle by Patrice Kindl

After seeing this book on several of the book blogs I follow, I quickly added Keeping the Castle by Patrice Kindl to my library reserve list.  If you enjoy Jane Austen, you will adore this romance set in the Regency period.  As a matter of fact, I saw elements from Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Sense and Sensibility, all three of which I greatly enjoyed.  It is a short novel and did only take me two days to read, but it was fun.  I have read that it can be considered "a gateway to more Jane Austen" for teens and I love the idea of any YA literature encouraging an appreciation for the classics.  The cover of the book also claims that those who liked I Capture the Castle will love this as well.  I didn't particularly care for that one as much as I had hoped I would, but this was wonderful.
A young woman of seventeen, Althea, lives in a poorly built castle with her mother, very young brother, and two horrible step-sisters.  The family is barely making ends meet and Althea has known for years the only possibility of saving her family from financial ruin is for her to marry well.  If she fails to find a wealthy husband, not only will her brother lose his only inheritance, the castle, but the servants and tenant farmers would be left with nothing as well.  Fortunately for Althea, she is a well-known beauty in her part of the country.  If only she could find the right man...
While some reviewers have objected to the idea of using one's beauty to secure a rich husband, the time in which this novel is set leaves our main character few other options.  I love the way the author handles the topic.  Love based on beauty is accepted, love based on wealth is not.  Or perhaps it is that a man may base his affections on shallow things, but a woman is expected to be accepting of whatever affections come her way.
"'So...' he thought this over.  'If I lost my money you wouldn't love me anymore?'
'If I became ill,' I countered, 'so that my hair fell out in clumps and my skin was covered with scabs and I limped, would you still love me?'
'Egad!' He stared at me, evidently attempting to picture this.  He turned a little green....
'It's not the same thing,' he said at last, looking sulky.  'Admiration of a woman's beauty in a man is...it's spiritual.  It shows he has a soul....But,' he went on, withdrawing his gaze, 'any consideration of the contents of a man's purse by a lady he is courting is...mercenary and shows a cold heart.'"
Later in the book, I loved this quote:
"It never ceases to astound me how often an unattractive man like Mr. Godalming considers himself above marriage to an equally unattractive woman."
This was a fun, very quick read and I would recommend it to any Jane Austen fan.  It is even on my Christmas gift list for one or two of them!

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Tale of Mally Biddle by M. L. LeGette

Mally Biddle is a young girl living on a farm with her widowed mother.  She spends most of her days chasing her goats and trying to convince them to come home.  It isn't an especially exciting life, but she is happy.  Well, happy if you don't count the bullying, thieving knights that come to collect "taxes" and threaten the people of her village.  Since the King of Lenzar was murdered many years before, the new king has allowed the knights to rule the country with cruelty and fear.  Mally feels powerless until she joins a band of rebels.  Their mission is to find out if the King's infant daughter really did die of a fever all those years ago, depriving the kingdom of it's rightful heir.  To do so, Mally is hired at the castle as a servant where she can learn more of the circumstances surrounding the princess's death.
This was a delightful book filled with excitement and more than a little espionage.  Mally is a bright, strong character that is far from happy playing the delicate victim.  She speaks up for herself and stands up for what is right, she doesn't hide her talents, but uses them to help those around her and she is loyal and protective of her friends and family.  While I admit it was a bit predictable, it was still a fun read.  This would be a fantastic book for a young girl and I think boys would enjoy the adventure in it as well.  I especially appreciate that it is a book I could recommend to a ten- or twelve-year-old and not worry about inappropriate content.  It is a very sweet book and very well written.  I really think you will enjoy it.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Catherine by April Lindner

Let me begin by saying that Wuthering Heights  has never been one of my favorite books.  I think it was always just too dark and a little messed up for me.  Even in high school when we are all supposed to be so moody and deep it was too much for me.  I always felt like there were some very strange relationships in the book, especially with Catherine and her brother Hindley.  It could also be the persistent desire for revenge throughout the novel that grated on me.  Whatever it was, I could never say I enjoyed reading it.
That said, I just finished reading Catherine by April Lindner, the author of Jane, another book I recently read and thoroughly enjoyed.  Like Jane , Catherine  is a modern retelling of a classic book, in this case Wuthering Heights .  This novel is told through two perspectives, Catherine's and her daughter Chelsea's, separated by two decades.  Honestly I did not expect to enjoy this book and had initially passed it by with no intention of reading it.  I'm so glad that I changed my mind.  While the themes remain consistent with the original, the updating of the situations make it a fun read.  Catherine falls in love with Hence (Heathcliff) and her brother Quentin (Hindley) hates him and blames him for taking away his father's love.  Catherine and Hence fight and split up.  She later marries someone else and has a daughter. Chelsea (Cathy).  Chelsea grows up believing her mother died, but sets out to find the truth.  This leads her to Hence where she discovers her mother's diary and learns so much about Catherine as a young woman. 
Reading a novel while knowing how it ends is an interesting experience.  In this case, I found myself still hoping it would turn out differently.  I kept wishing for the happy ending that was so elusive in my high school English class.  I commend Ms. Lindner for staying so true to the original story. A lesser writer might be tempted to change the events or add more salacious details and she resisted that.  I am hoping that Ms. Lindner will continue to write either more classic retellings or her own stories. 
So how do you feel about the classics being retooled?

Thursday, August 1, 2013

One Mississippi by Mark Childress

Have you ever gotten to the end of a book and thought to yourself, "That was messed up"?  That was pretty much how it went for me today.  At first, I was really enjoying One Mississippi by Mark Childress, our book club selection for August.  The book begins as a kind of coming of age novel about a sixteen-year-old boy, Daniel, who has just moved to Minor, Mississippi, from Indiana.  He has to make new friends and adjust to the culture of the deep south that is so new to him. 
Daniel begins school and feels lucky to have found a new friend.  "All you need is one friend who makes you laugh, who laughs at the same  things you do.  Almost at once I knew Tim Cousins would be my friend....He enjoyed making fun of everything as much as I did.  Right there on the first day of school, we formed a team, just the two of us." 
I was less than 100 pages into the novel when I started having an unsettled feeling and it continued throughout most of the book.  Something bad happens and the way the boys handle it worries me.  One wants to tell the truth, one wants to pin the blame on someone else entirely.  I just knew something bad was going to happen and I just kept waiting for it like waiting for the other shoe to drop.  As the story progresses, more and more anxiety just piled onto the heap, finally peaking with a huge disaster.  I won't give away more than that, but I will say that once I saw what was coming the sense of foreboding was almost unbearable. 
On the front cover of my copy of this book is a recommendation from renowned author Stephen King.  He says, "Funniest novel I have read in ten years!"  Really?  This was the funniest novel he has read in ten years?  I will admit that I have never read any Stephen King because his genre doesn't appeal to me at all.  I have no interest in reading horror novels.  Perhaps our distinct differences in taste account for him thinking this novel was funny and me thinking it was a tragedy.  I know I laughed at parts of the book, but once I got to the end and noticed King's quote on the front of the book, I suddenly couldn't remember any of the funny parts.  To me it just felt disturbing.  Maybe I worry too much.  Maybe the humor was just too dark for me. 
Have you read One Mississippi?  What did you think?

Friday, July 19, 2013

Spark by Amy Kathleen Ryan

Spark  by Amy Kathleen Ryan is the second novel in the Sky Chasers trilogy, following Glow .  It had been a while since I had read the first book before I began this one, and I had forgotten a few details, but luckily it started to come back to me as I read.  The premise is this: several hundred years in the future, two ships have left a ruined Earth in search of a new planet.  The ideologies of the two ships are very different and some disagreement has arisen as to which will better serve the people who make it to New Earth.  In this second book, events in the previous novel have left only children to run one of the ships.  It is impossible not to see ghosts of Lord of the Flies in there somewhere and in some situations it is more pronounced than others. 
One thing I am really enjoying about this series is the exploration of the way religion affects the creation of a society.  Ms. Ryan has said in an interview that she was very interested in the way that the religion of the early Puritan settlers of America impacted the creation of a nation and its politics for centuries.  Will a more religious society or a more secular society offer the most to the future citizens of New Earth?
As I said about Glow, no character is all good or all bad.  Many of the characters do horrible things, but with the best of intentions.  Once these actions are set on course, the consequences are often unforeseen and irreversible.  How does one correct a mistake, large or small?  Can we ever forgive and move on from what many would consider the unforgivable?  One section I thought was particularly timely was this:
"'So we condone spying on our crew members?' Waverly spat, then coughed.  Her throat still felt scratchy and weak.
'We are all afraid,' Alia said simply.  'Fear makes people do terrible things.'
'Well, it shouldn't go against people's rights,' Waverly said stubbornly."
I read this book quickly and I was fully engrossed.  The third book in the series was initially set for release Summer 2013, but that date has been pushed back to January 7th, 2014.  I know exactly on what I'll be spending those much hoped for Amazon gift cards from Santa. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

A Little Bit Wicked by Kristin Chenoweth

I am not usually a big non-fiction reader, but every once in a while I like to read a bit about the real world.  I adore Kristin Chenoweth and while I never had the opportunity to see Wicked  while she was part of the cast, I love listening to her on the recording of the original Broadway cast.  Her book, A Little Bit Wicked was as wonderful as you might expect from seeing her in movies, on television, on talk shows and in interviews. 
In her memoir, Kristin Chenoweth reveals fun tidbits about herself such as her real name is Kristi, but she was advised to changed it to Kristin so that people would take her more seriously.  She also delves into her personal life, relationships and struggles.  Running through it all is the role Kristin's faith plays in her life.  There are a few snippets I would really like to share, if you don't mind too terribly:
Speaking about her grandmother's funeral:  "I never really knew how many friends she had until her funeral.  Lots of ladies from lots of faiths, each bearing a gift of lemon bars, shoofly pie, or Tater Tots hotdish because Jesus told us to feed each other, too.  (The one delicacy not available on the Upper West Side: church-lady cuisine.)"
I nearly died laughing when she told of questioning her mother as a child about how babies are made.  I'll leave that one for you to read for yourself.  It is precious.
When a former boyfriend mentions that he has become a father, he says, 'What are you in the end if you don't have a child.'  "As he walks away, I stand there feeling like I've just been bludgeoned with my own biological clock."  I love the way she says that.
I learned a lot about the process of creating a big Broadway show.  In workshops, the production is created and often changed.  "Lesson learned:  it's dangerous to be SuperGlued to anything in any show.  (Or in life.)  You have to let go of what's not working no matter how dearly you wish it would work."  She's right- that is good advice.
And then there is the little "fairy tale" she includes near the end of the book. 
She calls it The Princess and the Bogsnart.  
Oh, how I would love to type it out for you here word for word, but I won't do that to you.  Essentially, it is the story of how some men, Bogsnarts, will trick a young woman into believing he is a nice guy.  Then the Bogsnart  will pull the rug out from under her, saying something like, "It's a pity.  Such a beautiful evening and I'm stuck here with this ugly girl."  How awful!  But we've all known a Bogsnart, haven't we? 
She ends the tale with, "So remember, all my glittery princesses, we must never allow a bogsnart (or a prince, in fact) to tell us who we are, no matter how handsome his disguise, no matter how needy our own hearts.  Our best and truest refection is found in the eyes of those who love us." 
Isn't that wonderful?!  I borrowed this book from the library, but I'm considering buying my own copy just to have that one little section to reread myself and especially to read and reread to my daughter. 
I really did love this book.  If I were to point out any flaw it would be that the time line is a little screwy and the narrative feels a bit stream-of-consciousness.  Still, it was so much fun to read.  And I adore her tag line:  "Life's too short.  I'm not."  At 4'11", that's saying a lot, but what a big life she's had so far. 

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Jane by April Lindner

My favorite book has always been Jane Eyre  by Charlotte Bronte.  I struggled through most of the classics in high school because I didn't enjoy reading something that I didn't get to pick for myself.  Jane Eyre  was the exception.  I have read and reread it and I really do love it.  So many girls say, (insert syrupy sweet tone of voice here) "Oh Pride and Prejudice  is so romantic.  I just love Mr. Darcy."  And to an extent I agree with them, but it never quite captured me like Jane Eyre  did.  Jane is a character with just so much... well, character.  She has integrity and self-respect and while she knows that her prospects are not great, she still has high expectations for herself and the people around her.  THIS is the kind of role model we should be promoting for young women today.
And then I found Jane  by April Lindner.  This has been on my list for a while now and I'm so glad I finally read it.  Oh, it is just wonderful.  Jane  is a modern retelling of Jane Eyre  and it does not disappoint.  In this version, Jane is a young woman forced to drop out of Sarah Lawrence at the end of her freshman year when her parents die in a car crash.  Don't worry.  I'm not giving anything away that isn't stated in the first page or two.  Jane then goes to a nanny placement service and is hired to work for an insanely famous rock star, Nico Rathburn.  How perfectly can you see Mr. Rochester morphed into a tortured rock star with a shady past?
This book does not talk down to the reader and while it is considered a YA novel, it doesn't feel like one.  Jane is only 19, but she acts years older.  Also, she is the youngest character in the book, aside from Maddy, her charge, so it doesn't turn into some sad Jane-Eyre-in-high-school ridiculousness.  It was written to appeal to all fans of Jane Eyre not just teenage girls.  Just a disclaimer:  While this book is in the Young Adult genre, you might want to preview it before handing it to your twelve-year-old.  Some of the language is much more what one might expect from a rock star and there is an adult situation or two. 
I loved this book.  I borrowed it from the library, but I will soon be purchasing my own copy so that I can reread it whenever I like.  Of course the original is beautifully written and this contemporary version won't take it's place at the top of my metaphorical bookshelf, but I did truly enjoy it and I was pleasantly surprised.  Pick it up and tell me what you think.  Are you a fan of rewrites or should well enough just be left alone?

Friday, July 5, 2013

A Tangle of Knots by Lisa Graff

After seeing several book reviewers list A Tangle of Knots  by Lisa Graff as one of the top ten books to read this year, I added it to my summer reading list.  This one I read just for me, but my children would have loved it.  Centering around several different story lines, A Tangle of Knots  takes place in Poughkeepsie, New York.  This is a very special version of the world in which most people have a Talent.  These Talents can be anything from knot-tying to plant-watering or even spitting.  One eleven-year-old girl possesses the Talent of knowing exactly which kind of cake will be someone's favorite and the head of a home for orphaned girls is Talented in knowing exactly which family and which orphan go together. 
I also loved that between several chapters, the author includes recipes for some of the characters' perfect cakes:  Miss Malory's Peach Cake, Will's S'more Cake, Marigold's Lime Pound Cake and even one called Zane's Garlic Cake.  I'm not sure I'd like to try that last one, but it says it is "a cake that's not as terrible as it seems, on the surface, to be."
And finally the moral of the story is all wrapped up in one man's advice to Cady, the last orphan,
"'Just remember this,' he said. 'It's the way we deal with what Fate hands us that defines who we are.'"
That's good advice for all of us, young or old.
This book was a quick read and a lot of fun. I think my niece will love it so I've already put it on my Christmas list for her!  Shh...don't tell her.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Driving the Saudis by Jayne Amelia Larson

Several months ago while listening to NPR, I hear about this book, Driving the Saudis by Jayne Amelia Larson.  The author was being interviewed and I was fascinated with what she had to say.  Ms. Larson had spent seven weeks as a chauffeur for a family of Saudis that were vacationing in Beverly Hills.  This week I was finally able to read her book documenting those seven weeks and what a harrowing experience it was!
Ms. Larson was an out-of-work actress/ producer and had begun driving as a chauffeur as a side job.  When an opportunity to drive a Saudi family arose, she jumped at the chance because she had heard that these families often presented their drivers with extravagant tips at the end of their stay.  The rumors were that she could receive $5,000- $20,000 in cash and possibly even expensive gifts if she were to impress her clients.  This was no easy accomplishment.  Ms. Larson was required to be on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for the full seven week stay.  She was to drive anywhere and for anyone that security sent her way.  While she never drove for any of the Saudi men, she was assigned for a time to drive the royal hair dresser. He preferred to make the two hour trip every night to the casinos in Palm Springs, stay all night at the slot machines and then she had to drive him back to Beverly Hills early every morning.
When she wasn't driving the hair dresser, she was driving one teenage princess or another.  The family arrived in town with millions of dollars in cash.  Each day, Ms. Larson witnessed the shopping excursions that lasted all day and visited only the most exclusive designer boutiques.  One of the chapters is even entitled "How Many Hermes Are Too Many?".  In another chapter, she says, "I saw that most of the Saudi teenage girls were also dressed in thousands of dollars worth of fashionable clothing they were ultra-chic mini-versions of the older women.  Saudis buy over 75 percent of the world's haute couture, so I guess they start the girls off young."
Ms. Larson also took the opportunity to learn what she could about the family and it's culture.  Although she was not supposed to ask questions, she found people who were willing to explain how things worked.  For instance, she was surprised to see that the women were not covered when they were in town.  "...they looked like a bunch of Brazilian hotties going nightclubbing.  Many of the women were scantily clad in Versace, Gucci, and Prada..."  It was explained to her that outside of the Kingdom, they could wear whatever they pleased.  She also had many discussions with the more religious, and therefore covered, servants.  She learned a lot about the five pillars of Islam.  One of the young girl's nannies, Malikah, became Ms. Larson's friend and shared many of her beliefs.  "She accepted that each person must come to God in her own way and that this must be done in her own time, and Malikah was content to practice her faith as it suited her without casting aspersions on those around her who were less pious." 
In the end, Ms. Larson worked so hard and so many hours that she began to look sickly.  She lost so much weight that her clothes were hanging off her body and she was exhausted.  As the departure day for the family approached, she looked forward to the big fat envelope that she hoped would hold her tip.  She was relieved when the family's 747 finally lifted off the ground.  She had spent nearly two months as a fly on the wall.  She saw millions of dollars spent on luxury goods and plastic surgery, she watched ambitious servants attempt to work their way up in royal favor and often push others down in the process, she learned about a culture that she had never before experienced.  This was a quick read and an enjoyable one.  I'm not the biggest reader of non-fiction, but this one was more like listening to a friend gossip.  Pick it up, I think you'll like it.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

Oh, my.  This book.  To call The Art of Racing in the Rain  by Garth Stein a dog book would be a colossal mistake.  While the book is narrated by and told from the point of view of Enzo, a dog, this is not a book about a dog.  This is a book about a family of which Enzo is an important member.   Enzo's owner is Denny, an aspiring race car driver.  Denny and Enzo love to watch racing videos together and much of what Enzo knows about life he has learned through racing.  Enzo also watches other television and as his philosophies develop, he shares them.  For instance, his opinion on evolution: "So what if man's body evolved from the monkeys?  Whether he came from monkeys or fish is unimportant.  The important idea is that when the body became 'human' enough, the first human soul slipped into it."
Enzo believes that his soul is as near to human as possible.  After watching a documentary about reincarnation, he feels certain that his next life will be in the body of a man and he is ready.  The book begins at the end.  Enzo is very old and struggling to keep up.  It is clear he has very little time left in this world.  (For this reason, I did not give this book to a friend of mine that I know loves dogs as her lab is now 14 years old.)  Enzo then proceeds to tell us what his life has been like from the beginning, how he came to live with Denny and what it was like for him when Denny married and had a daughter. 
Enzo is a kind soul.  He is wise.  He is unselfish.  He stands by as a witness as Denny's life falls apart and at times Enzo even helps direct Denny's path, keeping him from danger and regret.  I admit that I am not much of a dog person, though we have had a dog for the last three years.  He is sweet, but I am not as attached to him as my children and husband are.  And yet I would be the last person to say that our dog doesn't have a soul and his own personality.
Oh, if only we could hear his thoughts.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

I have read about this book in so many places over so many years that I felt I just had to read it.  I Capture the Castle  by Dodie Smith was written in the 1940s and has been praised in the same category as Jane Austen.  It took me a little while to realize that the entire premise of the book is that a young girl, Cassandra, is keeping a journal to hone her writing skills.  By "capturing the castle" on the page, Cassandra hopes to someday become a great writer.  She documents her family's tragedy and triumphs, telling the story of how they came to live in a beautiful old castle, how her father had spent time in prison, how they currently live in near poverty.  The excitement begins when two wealthy single young men (you know what Jane Austen has to say about that) move in to the estate nearby and take an interest in Cassandra's older sister Rose. 
I must say I was slightly disappointed that I didn't enjoy this book nearly as much as I had hoped I would.  It was a bit of a slow read and I really hoped for more for the characters.  I will pass it along to a friend of mine who also happens to love Jane Austen and see if she can help me see the error of my ways.  Have you read this one?  Am I wrong for not falling in love with it?  I would love to hear what you think.

Entwined by Heather Dixon

Last week, I reread a book that I loved last year, Entwined  by Heather Dixon.  You can read my original review here.  This book is so sweet and so much fun.  I really can't recommend it enough.  It was written as a Young Adult novel, but everyone I know that has read it has enjoyed it as much as I have.  If you are looking for something light to read by the pool or at the beach this summer, pick up this one.  Then come back and tell me how much you loved it.  I promise you will!