Saturday, December 17, 2016

What I've Heard- When Breath Becomes Air

I read When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi just two months ago and it is still with me. When I had the opportunity to listen to the audio version, I was a little concerned it might be an emotionally difficult listening experience. While it did make me cry at the end (runners give cyclists the strangest looks when they are cycling and blubbering at the same time), it was so beautifully read. This book is so touching and the audio version is just the same. I hope you will read and/or listen to this book.
It really should be required reading.

What I've Heard- The Da Vinci Code

I read The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown, nearly ten years ago when I was pregnant with my youngest. It was a fun, fast- paced book full of interesting theories and it was perfect when my attention span wasn't as long as usual. I thought it would be fun to listen to the audio version and I was surprised about how much I didn't remember from reading it so long ago. The narration was good, it was well read. I did at times feel like the characters weren't sufficiently concerned with the passing of time and I don't remember feeling that way when I read it so perhaps that is something that comes out more with listening. If this is a genre you enjoy, I would recommend this audiobook. My husband also enjoyed Angels and Demons, but I probably won't continue with the series.

The League of Unexceptional Children by Gitty Daneshavari

The League of Unexceptional Children by Gitty Daneshvari is just the opposite of most kid hero books. In those books, the hero is smart, athletic, exceptional. In this book, well, not so much. Jonathan and Shelley are exceptionally unexceptional. So why are they being chosen to save the country from certain destruction?

To be an ordinary, normal, average, unexceptional child in a world that celebrates first place, the best, top of the class, and so on is tantamount to being invisible.

And because they are invisible they are the perfect spies.

This book is the first in a series of adventure books aimed at young readers. I can't say I was a fan. It was a very quick read and children may like it, but I felt it left so much to be desired. I'm all in favor of celebrating the everyday and helping children to see their own strengths even when they aren't the ones that are most obvious, but I worry that this elevates mediocrity. Everyone can't be class president or a prodigy Nobel prize winner, of course, but straight Cs on a report card is not something I think should be heralded. Be who you are, but be the best you can be.

Reading the Sweet Oak by Jan Stites

After reading my last book, I was really in need of something lighter, something a bit frivolous. I found the perfect thing in Reading the Sweet Oak by Jan Stites. This book mostly features Tulsa, a young woman who lives on the Sweet Oak river in the Ozarks with her grandmother, Ruby. The two of them, along with Tulsa's half-brother Guy, run a canoe business. Living on the river is all Tulsa ever wants in her life, but Ruby would like her to add in a little romance as well. With this in mind, Ruby asks Tulsa to read a romance novel, something that Tulsa scoffs at but does to please her grandmother, then surreptitiously begins a romance book club in their home. We are then introduced to Pearl, Ruby's childhood friend; BJ, Guy's mother; and Jen, Tulsa's friend. Each of these women is in their own time of life, romantically, and we get to hear each of their perspectives. This all happens as Tulsa and Ruby struggle to keep their business afloat.

I don't read romance novels. I think they are silly and I really don't enjoy reading the more... amorous descriptions they usually include. I prefer a fade-to-black approach to love scenes. This book itself was very light on those scenes, but the characters did discuss some of those descriptions in the books they were reading. As I said, I was looking for something easy and silly and I found it in this book. If romance novels are your thing, you may really enjoy this. If not, you still may like it as a beach read. I like multi-generational stories about women like this, so that's what I took from it.

Monday, December 5, 2016

This Is Where It Ends by Marieke Nijkamp

Fifty- four minutes. That is all the time that is allowed to elapse in Marieke Nijkamp's
This Is Where It Ends. Those are fifty-four very intense minutes told through the perspective of four different students: Claire, Tomas, Autumn and Sylv. The cover of the book gives the reader plenty of warning that this is about a school shooting, but it was so palpable, so acute. This isn't one of those books that starts out with lots of backstory and eventually leads up to the event as the climax. This book is all climax. The shooting is nearly the whole book and the reader experiences it in real time with the characters.

Autumn and Sylv are sitting in the regularly scheduled first-day-of-the-semester assembly. Tomas is picking through files in the principal's office where he has been sent for yet another prank. Claire is sucking nearly freezing air into her lungs as she pushes herself around the track in preparation for the first track meet of the season. None of them have any idea what is coming, but when it does they will be changed forever. 

I can't remember the last time I read a book in a single day. It helps that this one had such a rapid pace, but I also couldn't stand to put it down. Not that I didn't want to. I actually considered putting it in the freezer for a little while (name that reference!), but I felt like I had to keep reading. I felt like my reading was the only thing keeping the characters alive. If I stop, they'll all die. Irrational, sure, but since when have I ever been rational about fictional characters? We've all been there and this book is sure to do the same to you.

This book is more than the heartbreaking accounts we read of actual school shootings. It has all of those awful, gruesome, dreadful details, but is also has so much good as well. The students who help each other, the stories of the teacher everyone admires, and the pain of knowing the shooter as more than just "the shooter". This is a real person with real background to these characters and they just can't understand how this could have happened even as it is happening. Nijkamp does a brilliant job with this difficult subject matter and with the tempo of the story. The only predictability about it is when the reader knows something bad is going to happen but not what, and that only adds to the apprehension. At other times, she surprises her reader with a sudden turn that can knock the breath out of her readers. It is wonderfully done.

I know I will need to reread this book. Reading it so quickly was necessary, but I'll want to read it again. Please be warned that this book is brutal, but breathtaking. I think it would make an excellent book for discussion. I'd love to hear what you think.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

The Dead House by Dawn Kurtagich

I have had The Dead House by Dawn Kurtagich in my TBR pile for a long time, but I just hadn't gotten to it. Last month my sister and I attended the Texas Book Festival for the second time where we were able to catch a panel where Dawn Kurtagich spoke and my interest in the book was renewed. Kurtagich spoke about the difficulties in her life surrounding the writing of The Dead House. She had been diagnosed with liver failure and was very ill, eventually receiving a liver transplant. During this time, she experienced inversion syndrome causing her to be awake all night and asleep all day. She began to wonder about what life would be like for someone who could only experience life at night. This led her to The Dead House.

Kaitlyn is a seventeen-year-old girl who is only aware from sundown to sunup. During the day, she is someone else. During the day, Carly is in control. Kaitlyn's/Carly's unreliable psychiatrist, Dr. Lansing is convinced this is due to DID, Dissociative Identity Disorder, caused by the trauma of the recent deaths of her parents. Kaitlyn cannot seem to convince Dr. Lansing that she and Carly have always been together, but that their parents had always told them to keep it a secret because no one would understand. Carly's new friend, Naida, does understand. She is a practitioner of Mala, an ancient form of what many would call witchcraft and she believes that Carly/Kaitlyn are the extremely rare presentation of two souls in one body. When Carly begins to disappear, Kaitlyn is desperate to find and save her and turns to Naida for help. There are dark forces at work and Kaitlyn isn't sure whom she should trust.

Created while Kurtagich was very ill, it is choppy and fragmented, written in snippets of diary entries, transcripts from video logs and police record interviews. This was the author's intention. During the panel interview, Kurtagich spoke of writing this book one entry at a time, as she felt well enough. I felt this added to the urgency, the tension of the story. The pace was very quick, but the progress felt slow. Several times I felt like I must be approaching the climax of the story, only to look down at the progress (I read this on my Kindle) to see I still had much more of the book ahead of me. 

This book is a psychological thriller, YA horror, and I'm sure many people would like it, but it just wasn't my favorite. It had some interesting elements, but it was too dark for me. There were parts described in the book that I also found pretty unbelievable. At one point, Kaitlyn's arms have been very badly cut and she asks Naida to sew them up for her. Nope. I just couldn't buy that. I will say, however, that the book approaches some very important topics: mental health and disorders, abusive relationships, uncertainty with the mental health profession. This was a strange book, but one that I know has many devoted fans. Perhaps you will like it better than I did.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

What I've Heard- The Husband's Secret

Two years ago I read The Husband's Secret and loved it. It is a wonderful book about a woman who discovers her husband has- that's right, you guessed it- a secret. But it is in discovering that secret and how to respond to it that the real mystery lies. Liane Moriarty is an Australian author and the audio version of this book reflects that with the narrator's Australian accent. It is lovely to hear and to imagine each of the women in this novel. This is a wonderful book and the audio version is just as good- I didn't want to turn it off. You should give it a listen.

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin

Why do things happen the way they do? Is it true that some things just happen with no rhyme or reason? That is just not something that Suzy is willing to accept during what becomes the hardest year of her life so far. In The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin, Suzy is just about to begin 7th Grade when her best friend Franny dies in a drowning accident. When Suzy wants to know how Franny could have drowned when she was such a good swimmer, she is told that "sometimes these things just happen." Searching for an explanation, Suzy discovers an obscure species of jellyfish that she thinks could have caused her friend's death. It is not long after this horrible incident that Suzy decides it would just be best for her to stop talking. Her parents are worried, but Suzy is too obsessed with learning about jellyfish and proving Franny's cause of death to be bothered.

Suzy is in 7th Grade, but she is lagging behind her peers in maturity a bit. This book explores what it is like to be left behind and also to find one's own path. It also deals with grief and loss and regret. Suzy also shares with us her wonderful science teacher, Mrs. Turton who is exactly the kind of teacher everyone wants. She teaches to teach, to share knowledge, not to fulfill a standard curriculum requirement. I love all the fun facts that Mrs. Turton adds to this book.

I liked that she didn't seem to care about the lesson plan but instead told us interesting things about the world.

Poor Suzy is really struggling at this time in her life, but she's working through it as best she can. She tries to focus on what is important and she isn't afraid to be who she is. She doesn't always make the kinds of decisions she should, some are actually rather questionable, but she's trying. One of my favorite quotes comes when Suzy is attempting something nearly impossible:

Confidence is magic. It can carry you through everything.

I think that may be good advice for all of us.

I really enjoyed this book and I've even already bought it for my niece for Christmas. (Shhhh...don't tell!) If you enjoy middle grade books (I love them!) or if you know someone who does, this book should definitely be in the To Be Read pile.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

What I've Heard- The Girl on the Train

About a year-and-a-half ago, I read The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins and really enjoyed it. Today I finished listening to the audio version and it was wonderful. Narrated by Clare Corbett, Louise Brealey and India Fisher, this audiobook is just lovely. The actor reading the part of Megan Hipwell, Louise Brealy, was making me crazy the whole time I listened because I knew it was so familiar, but I just couldn't place it. Finally I had to know and after a quick search I discovered she is the actor who plays Molly Hooper on Sherlock. She has a great voice.

Winner of Audiobook of the Year, 2016, The Girl on the Train is an exciting audiobook and a perfect way to revisit the story before seeing the film that was released earlier this month. I really liked it.

The Doctors Are In by Graeme Burk and Robert Smith?

Over the past couple of years I have become a huge Doctor Who fan. Well, by my standards I am a huge fan. By the standards of someone like Graeme Burk or Robert Smith? (yes, the question mark is part of his name- according to this article he added it as a teenager to distinguish from the many other Robert Smiths in the world), I am just a newbie. I was thrilled, however, when I was offered the e-galley of The Doctors Are In to review. I will admit that I skipped over the original incarnations of the Doctor and right to the 2005 reboot Doctors. I remember being so upset that the Ninth Doctor changed at the end of the first series (that I watched, anyway), but I came to really love the Tenth Doctor. However, the Eleventh Doctor's storylines are my favorite because they have Amy, Rory and possibly my most favoritest (yes, that's exactly what I meant to say) fictional character of all time, River Song. I haven't yet warmed to the Twelfth Doctor yet, but I've only watched his first series and only once. I've learned to reserve judgement.

This is a fun book that is pure fan love. It explores the actor who plays each Doctor, the best (and sometimes worst) episodes of that Doctor and some of the little knows facts about the show. If you're a fan (or even if you're a newbie like me) this is a book you would really enjoy.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Scary Mommy's Guide to Surviving the Holidays by Jill Smokler

As of this writing, there are only 73 days until Christmas. 73 days! I can hardly believe that, but it seems to arrive more quickly every year so I suppose I had better get ready. I've had Scary Mommy's Guide to Surviving the Holidays by Jill Smokler for over a year now, but I didn't have time to read it before the holidays last year and I wanted to save it until it felt a little more relevant...and until it felt a little cooler outside. This book is a collection of essays compiled by Jill Smokler, creator of Scary Mommy, a parenting blog followed by millions of parents that expresses in no uncertain terms that parenting doesn't have to be perfect. Scary Mommy's Guide to Surviving the Holidays takes us along with Jill and a few of her friends as we commiserate about all those little things that threaten to suck the fun out of the holiday season.

When I first started the book, I thought that it seemed like it might be a little too cynical for me. Sometimes our kids annoy us. That is just a fact of parenting, but some people can, at times, take that a bit far. This was the sentence that made me worry:

Getting through the holidays is no longer a matter of joy and celebration; it's a survival of the fittest.

I'm all for laughing at the way our kids make us crazy just to keep from crying, but I feared this was not going to be the book for me. But then I kept reading...

The first essay in the book is entitled Thanksgiving Etiquette Manifesto, by Leslie Marinelli. It begins with a recital of all the way she spends weeks "planning and preparing for the most highly anticipated meal of the year, only to have my Rockwellian dreams shattered in a matter of seconds by the arrival of my extended family." The essay goes on to provide a list of requirements for attending Thanksgiving Dinner. She knows that it will either make the day better, or people will get offended and not come. She is perfectly okay with either outcome.

This book is filled with hilarious essays to which we can all relate. From forgetting to thaw the Thanksgiving Turkey to a funny Dysfunctional Family Drinking Game; from hoping the kids will figure out that Santa is not real (I'm so on board with this!) to the torture that is the holiday card photo session. This book is also filled with great recipes that somehow still manage to be funny. And finally, there is also a great gift list for those parents you hate (glitter art kits and musical instruments).

One thing that I thought was absolutely wonderful about this book was something I found in the introduction. After years of hosting a very popular blog, Jill Smokler yearned for a way to help some of her readers, and others, who were in need. After a very short four day fundraising effort, she had raised $18,000 that would be used to purchase nearly four hundred Thanksgiving dinners for families in need. Suddenly, The Thanksgiving Project was born. It is now an official 501(c)(3) charity that has helped over four thousand families celebrate a holiday they otherwise couldn't have. This is an inspiring use of one's popularity.

This book was very funny and a very entertaining read. You really should read it and now is a perfect time. Not only is the holiday season upon us, but right now you can purchase the Kindle version for only 99 cents! You canNOT beat that!

I'll just leave you with these parting words:

Whether you are at the adults' table or the infamous kids' table, I wish you a very happy Thanksgiving. May you find the joy in the holiday no matter where you sit.

What I've Heard- The Thirteenth Tale

This is the first in my What I've Heard series of posts. Today I finished listening to the audio version of The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. This is a book that I read years ago, pre-SmartGirls, and I loved it. It is the perfect book for this time of year- it's part mystery, part ghost story- and it is absolutely wonderful. This was the second time I've listened to this audiobook and it is so well done. It is read by Bianca Amato and Jill Tanner and it is 15 hours and 38 minutes in length.

This is one of my favorite audiobooks, but it is a bit quiet, a bit subdued so I wouldn't recommend it for a long car ride. This book is beautifully written and wonderfully read. I really cannot recommend it enough. As you can see, I've added it to my Required Reading list because I feel just that strongly about it. If audiobooks aren't your thing, please pick up a print copy to read. You won't be sorry.

What I've Heard- An Introduction

I have been thinking of adding an audiobook facet to my blog for a while and now I'm finally doing it! My love of audiobooks began years and years ago, but in the last four of five years it has really grown. My most recent obsession with them began with listening to audiobooks just while I would ride my bike (with only one earbud in, for safety) or walk for exercise. An audiobook seemed like a good distraction as well as good motivation to get back out and exercise. Gradually, however, my listening became more frequent. Did you know that audiobooks are the perfect accompaniment for housework? It's true! I listen while I vacuum, clean the kitchen, everything. Immersing myself in the narrative of a good book easily distracts from any unpleasant task. 

The popularity of audiobooks has risen sharply in the last couple of years. According to this link on, 43,000 new audiobooks were released this year, up from 20,000 just three years ago. That is a lot of audiobooks and a lot of audiobook listeners. The industry has been spurred on by Audible and I love that books are becoming so much more accessible.

I do have one rule that I try to follow. I only listen to audio versions of books that I have already read. That may seem silly to some, but my player makes it difficult to skip back a "page" if I get distracted and miss something or if I'm just confused about a plot point. With books I've already read, I understand where the storyline is going and who the characters are and I can usually keep up pretty well. In addition to that, audiobooks give me the opportunity to revisit a story I have loved in the past, but my not have the time to devote to a full re-read.

My favorite thing about audiobooks is the way listening to a book being read can really bring a story to life. A book well read can evoke the most vibrant images. Often, when a book also has a movie version, I forget if an image I have in my head is from the movie or from listening to the audiobook. Of course, not all audiobook narrators are created equal. Jim Dale (reader of the Harry Potter series and The Night Circus) is a master. When people say, "I could listen to him read the phone book," they are not exaggerating. He is fabulous. On the other hand, I have listened to a few audiobooks that I had to just turn off because the narrator was so bad. This seems to happen most often when I am listening to a YA book; perhaps they think the reader needs to sound like a twelve-year-old girl for the sake of the expected audience, but if done badly it can be too big an obstacle for me.

My intention here is to direct you to the good ones. These posts will likely be shorter than my regular book reviews, but my main purpose will be to review the listening experience.
I love audiobooks and I hope we can help each other discover our next favorite.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Oh, my. I've had When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi for some time now, but I was waiting to be in just the right mood to read it. Paul Kalanithi is a neurosurgery resident just at the edge of finishing his training when he discovers that he has lung cancer and that the cancer has already spread. In this book, Paul describes the ways in which cancer changes his life. This autobiography takes the reader back to Paul's childhood and along the path that led him to medicine. Initially, Paul was drawn to literature. He has a B.A and M.A in English Literature from Stanford. Then, as he became interested in medicine, he also earned a B.A in Human Biology from Stanford. He then earned an M.Phil in History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine from the University of Cambridge after which he attended medical school at Yale. After returning to Stanford for his residency, he was involved in several award-winning research projects while also completing rigorous training in neuroscience and neurosurgery. Paul had an incredible career ahead of him and had plans to share his extensive knowledge through teaching. Through it all, this was Paul's purpose:

I was driven less by achievement than by trying to understand, in earnest:
What makes human life meaningful?

I was fascinated with the descriptions of Paul's work as a physician. I find medicine very intriguing and the descriptions of his day-to-day work were so interesting to me. Harder to read, however, were his struggles transitioning from doctor to patient. After his diagnosis, Paul was forced to take some time away from work.

...without that duty to care for the ill pushing me forward, I became an invalid.

After two months [of physical therapy], I could sit for thirty minutes without tiring. I could start having dinner with friends again.

Oh, I can't imagine how difficult that must have been. Terminal illness takes so much away from the patient. After much difficulty, Paul and his wife Lucy decide to have a child. This was not an easy decision. Paul didn't want to burden his wife, nor did he want to miss the experience of being a parent.

Lucy:"Don't you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful"
Paul:"Wouldn't it be great if it did?"
Lucy and I both felt that life wasn't about avoiding suffering.

Of course having a child would add one more person to whom he would have to say goodbye, but it would be one more person to love until that day arrived. He displayed so much strength of character, so much integrity of heart:

...knowing that even if I'm dying, until I actually die, I am still living.

Can we all claim to have such perspective? Paul maintained his sense of humor. At the end of his fifteenth medical school class reunion, he had this experience:

...when old friends called out parting promises-- "We'll see you at the twenty-fifth!" -- it seemed rude to respond with "Probably not!"

In the epilogue, Paul's wife Lucy shares Paul's final days and her experience with his death. It is a touching account of love and loss. She says:

Paul confronted death-- examined it, wrestled with it, accepted it-- as a physician and a patient. He wanted to help people understand death and face their mortality.

Finally, one last quote that is sure to pull at the reader's heart:

At home in bed a few weeks before he died, I asked him, "Can you breathe okay with my head on your chest like this?" His answer was "It's the only way I know how to breathe."

Oh, this book fascinated me and eviscerated me. No one can know the good that Paul might have been able to do as a physician if he had lived a long, healthy life, but the good I expect he has done with this book is immeasurable. He has left a legacy for his daughter and a guide to anyone experiencing a terminal illness as well as family members and friends of those patients. This book is beautiful and heart-rending. Please read it.

The Sound of Glass by Karen White

The Sound of Glass by Karen White really snuck up on me. A book about a woman who suddenly inherits the family home of her not-too-recently departed husband, the family home of a family she never knew he had, sounded a bit silly to me. A woman born and raised in Maine picks up and moves to a small town in South Carolina to live in a three hundred-year-old house sounded like a "Yankee-invades-the-South" kind of book and those are never as entertaining as people think they will be. And yet... 

Merritt has a dark past and is looking to start her life anew. The opportunity to transplant herself to an old family home in South Carolina seems as good an idea as any other and so, without too much thought and even less preparation, she leaps. When she arrives, she discovers that not only was she completely unaware of her late husband's family, his family and the whole town where he grew up were completely unaware of her. She is shaken to discover that her husband, Cal, has a brother and that Cal and this brother, Gibbes have the very same eyes. Complicating matters further is the quite abrupt arrival of Loralee, Merritt's step-mother to whom she hasn't spoken in over a decade and her ten-year-old half brother. When this book is described as a "family drama", there is a good reason. Adding to all of this is the discovery of a nearly sixty-year-old plane crash mystery that spans three generations.

Oh, my goodness. This book! I was sucked right in to the story, especially as bits of the mystery came trickling in to the tale. Each of the characters is so rich, though Loralee is my favorite. She has a pink journal into which she writes her "truths" about life. They range from the practical to the more existential. Here are just a few:

  • The weight of fear goes away as soon as we face our monsters and realize they weren't as scary as we thought.
  • Even in the blackest darkness, there is always light shining somewhere. 
  • Forget what hurt you in the past. But never forget what it taught you.
  • You can't move forward if you always have one foot on the brake.
  • There are no shortcuts to anyplace worth going.
  • Life doesn't get easier. We just get stronger.
And my favorite:
  • Everybody dies. But not everybody lives.

I really enjoyed reading this book. It was one of those that captured my attention right away and I couldn't wait to find out what would happen. This would be a great vacation book- light and fun, but still with enough meat to hold your interest. Let me know if you like it!

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg

It is one of the most important days in your life: your only child's wedding day. Family and friends are gathering from afar, plans are all set and the church is decorated and waiting. This is the kind of day June is expecting when her entire world falls apart in Bill Clegg's Did You Ever Have a Family. When a terrible accident takes everyone that means anything to her, June does what she can to survive. She runs.

It this moving novel, we follow June on her journey, but we also are allowed to follow the other characters touched by this awful disaster. We get to know the bride a little, the groom's family, the people who take June in when she needs it and the people she leaves behind. People have complicated stories and Clegg resists the temptation to simplify them. I really enjoyed this book and its beautiful writing. I hope you'll read it.

...We've learned that grief can sometimes get loud, and when it does, we try not to speak over it.

Stuffocation by James Wallman

I am in the process of moving out of state and as anyone knows, moving is the surest way to realize just how much STUFF you own. I've had Stuffocation by James Wallman on my Kindle for a while now, but this seemed like just the right time to read it. In Stuffocation, Wallman makes the case that we, as a society, have way too much stuff. And of course, he's not wrong. One flip through a few basic cable channels will show you he's right. How many different version of Hoarders are on TV now? Too many. While most of us just have overflowing junk drawers and crowded closets, it is a growing problem.

It is about how you, me, and society in general, instead of feeling enriched by the things we own, are feeling stifled by them.

Wallman writes a very well-researched and almost academic review of the problem of clutter and our accumulation of stuff. While I found most of this very interesting, some of it did begin to drone on a bit and I admit that I skimmed the last 20% or so of the book. That being said, I did find Wallman's book interesting and thought-provoking. I especially liked his comparison that Stuffocation is the material equivalent of the obesity epidemic. He also discusses that our desire to accumulate more stuff causes us anxiety and is bad for our health. We spend so much of our time and effort working to make more money to buy more stuff and it doesn't actually make us happier. We would be much better off with fewer possessions, working fewer hours and enjoying life more.

Wallman presents several case studies where people have given up most of the things they own and have become happier for it. What I especially appreciate is that never does Wallman say that we all need to give up most of our things and live in a tiny house with only our toothbrush, but he does encourage us to let go of materialism and try to get by with fewer things.

In the end, Wallman promotes not minimalism, but Experientialism which he defines as "having less and doing more." He says:

...We will be happier, healthier, richer, in every sense: less clutter, less regret, less anxiety, more meaning, more flow, more intrinsic enjoyment, better conversations, more connections, a healthier take on status, and a stronger sense of belonging.

That sounds like a pretty ringing endorsement to me. For the last year or so, our family has actually been striving toward living a more Experiential life without actually calling it that. We have urged our children to want less stuff, especially at traditional gift-giving times and have begun planning trips together instead. We are early in the conversion, but it is going pretty well so far.

This book was interesting, if a bit wordy, but I think if you were to pick it up you would find quite a lot of good information. It is definitely worth a read, though like me, you may skim over parts. Oh, and consider getting it at the library- no need to accumulate more stuff!

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Wednesday Sisters by Meg Waite Clayton

I don't read a lot of "chick lit", but I do love a good story about friendships between women. I love any story that shows women supporting and uplifting one another. Did you ever read Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons by Lorna Landvik? I read that before I started SmartGirlsRead, but I loved it! The Wednesday Sisters by Meg Waite Clayton was a little like it. In AHEB, the friends are all in a book club. In The Wednesday Sisters, the friends all meet at their neighborhood park and begin a writing club together. They begin meeting each Wednesday morning and presenting their individual writing projects. As they learn and grow as writers, they also grow as mothers, wives and women. They help one another through struggles and encourage each other.

This book is set in the late 1960s and though the main character gives us brief glimpses into the future for the Wednesday Sisters, the story contained in this book really only covers a few years. This book was fun to read and quick, but it also ended a bit too quickly for me. The ending felt, well... abrupt. The characters have complex concerns and difficulties in their lives, but somehow the storytelling seems to only brush the surface. I enjoyed this book, but it was no AHEB. Seriously, if you haven't read that one, get on it now!

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Repeat by Neal Pollack

Repeat by Neal Pollack features Brad Cohen, a nearly forty-year-old mostly-failed television writer in Hollywood, California. He has a wife and two young daughters he loves, but everything else in his life is a huge disappointment. On the eve of his fortieth birthday, something very strange happens. He falls asleep and when he wakes, he is in... his mother's womb. Somehow, Brad has found himself back at the very beginning of his own life. Also very strange- he remembers everything. How long will he be doomed- for he does feel doomed- to repeat his own life?

Brad explains his existence to another character as being a little like Groundhog Day, except that instead of repeating the same day over and over again, it is the same forty years over and over again. Brad knows every major event that will happen until 2010. He makes investments and bets, he predicts the rise and fall of governments and politicians. Sometimes he improves his own life by following dreams he has always had and sometimes he makes a mess of his own life. I think we have all thought about how we would do things differently if we could just go back, but Repeat shows us that it might not be the utopia we'd hope.

I liked this book and for me it was a quick read. Once I got to the second half of the book, I just couldn't stand to put it down and finished it as quickly as I could. There were a few parts that I wish had been omitted. Brad's second time through puberty was a little too descriptive for me, but I suppose it was realistic. This book was a bit similar to The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, but I didn't like it quite as much. ...Harry August had more purpose and more mystery, but Repeat was still fun to read.Parts of this book sound as though they may have been a bit autobiographical: according to the 'About the Author' section, Pollack is a certified yoga instructor and a three-time Jeopardy! champion. I thought that was pretty cool.

This is the kind of book that would elicit an interesting discussion. We only get one life and I've always believed that is what makes our decisions, our life choices, so important. If we could do this more than once, it wouldn't matter what we chose, but life isn't like that. We do have to choose and sometimes we are unhappy with those choices, but they make us who we are. 

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick

I have a twelve-year-old son and he is just wonderful, at least I think so. He is just about to begin 7th Grade and his assignment for summer reading is Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick. I remember summer reading when I was younger and it was nothing so entertaining and age appropriate as this. Pride and Prejudice is wonderful, but having it forced down my throat at such a young age nearly ruined me for all classics.

Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pie follows Steven through his 8th Grade year of middle school. Steven is a talented drummer in the All-City band and spends hours at a time practicing in his basement. He is also infatuated by a girl at school named Renee. The school year seems to be starting like any other school year until Steven's much younger brother Jeffrey gets terribly sick. Jeffrey has leukemia.

There are lots of books out there about kids with cancer. What makes this one unique is that it isn't about the kid with the cancer, it's about the kid's brother and how he deals with the horror of watching a family member battle such an awful disease. Sonnenblick actually wrote this book because a student of his was experiencing the same thing and Sonnenblick, wanting to help, could find no books about siblings of cancer patients. None. Cancer is a terrible thing to experience, but watching a loved one with cancer is not easy. As Hermione says, "When in doubt, go to the library," but what if the library is lacking what you need? Sonnenblick's purpose was to fill that need. What he created is a story that shows that family of cancer patients aren't perfect. Even while feeling bad for his brother, Steven was still sometimes annoyed by him. Even while watching his parents struggle, Steven was angry at being left alone.

Sonnenblick also does a wonderful job of enumerating and explaining the five stages of grief, though he is careful not to call it anything so technical. He shows Steven making his way from denial and anger, through bargaining and depression to acceptance. It is in simple terms and the progression is far neater than most people would actually experience, but he shows that it is okay to have each of those feelings.

My son enjoyed this book and so did I. I appreciate his teachers picking a book that is both relatable to a 7th Grade boy and also full of useful information. While it wasn't great literature, I can recommend it to your preteens. I'm so glad summer reading has come so far in just one generation.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

The Canterbury Sisters by Kim Wright

In The Canterbury Sisters by Kim Wright, Che (pronounced Shay) is having a difficult time. Her mother has just passed away and has left Che with complicated instructions for her final resting place. Che's mother has asked Che to take her remains on a pilgrimage to Canterbury. Sure, they had talked of going when Che knew that her mother wouldn't ever be healthy enough to actually make the trip, but when she is asked to keep her promise, she is surprised by her willingness to follow through with her word. Adding one more curve ball to Che's plans is the sudden illness of her tour guide, forcing Che to join in with a women's tour group. She had intended to make her journey quickly and quietly, but that is not what Che will have. Instead, she is thrown together with eight other women, each with their own story, their own journey to make. And just as in Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, we get to hear each pilgrim's story.

This is a lighthearted, lovely book of Chick Lit. I don't always enjoy Chick Lit, but this one was well written and full of interesting characters. Had this just been Che's story I surely would have been quickly bored, but by adding in the other women and their tapestry of tales, Wright added depth and dimension. This book also explores the sometimes complicated relationship between women and their mothers. Che's mother has always been demanding, eccentric and difficult, but as Che watches her succumbing to cancer, she struggles to know how to relate to her before it is too late.

It's hard to be honest in the presence of the dying and it's hard to be honest with your mother under any circumstances. So when your mother is dying, the effect is squared and you enter into the most bizarre netherworld of bullshit.

Che, as our narrator, is really funny and I really like her. I love that she makes the effort to help the reader keep all the characters straight. When we first meet the group of women, it is overwhelming trying to remember who is whom, but Che struggles with the same problem and keeps reminding the reader with funny mnemonics.

Also, while I know that the questions in a reader's guide at the back of a book are usually written by the publisher and shouldn't have much impact on the reader's opinion, the questions provided at the end of The Canterbury Sisters were thoughtful and thought-provoking. I appreciate what well-written questions can add to a book discussion.

I really liked this book and it is perfect for the dog days of summer. This is a travel book that will make you want to take your own journey. 60 miles along the trail to Canterbury sounds exactly like something I would like to do. And with a group of women, too. Read this book and I just know you'll feel the same way. 

It is better to travel well than to arrive.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Talk to Me by Sonia Ellis

Talk to Me by Sonia Ellis is a book about a young teen girl, Sadina, trying desperately to help her 7-year-old sister speak. Maddie speaks just fine at home to her mom, dad and older sister, but as soon as anyone else is around, she is absolutely silent. Maddie has selective mutism and it isn't something she can simply overcome. Sidina worries for her sister and is determined to find a way to help her.

This book was short and moved quickly. It would likely be a good read for a pre-teen. Honestly, I didn't really enjoy it that much. I was briefly engaged, but the storyline took an unlikely turn that seemed forced. There is an element of STEM in this book and so I appreciate that it is attempting to promote those skills, especially among girls. Perhaps you will like this book better than I did. It is the beginning of a series that could be cute.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

I loved Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel! It is present day in Toronto when the characters we've just met are faced with the outbreak of a deadly flu pandemic. And by deadly, I mean really deadly. More than 99 percent of the world's population is killed. It happens extremely quickly- from the moment a person begins to feel ill, they have less than forty- eight hours to live. Suddenly, nearly the everyone is dead. There is no one to maintain the electrical grid, causing the lights and all other electricity to switch off. Transportation breaks down as the people hoping to flee their cities to get away from the flu encounter unbreakable traffic jams, drivers dead in their cars. With no law enforcement, looting and violent crime run rampant causing even more deaths. Then the story flashes forward twenty years and we get to see how the world has adjusted, coped, with the new reality. People have survived and they have made new lives for themselves.

One of my favorite things about this book is that we get to see what happens next. So often with post-apocalyptic fiction, we see the event that causes the "end of the world" and we see the chaos, the anarchy, that ensues, but we don't get to see the rebuilding of civilization, however different that may look from the past. In Station Eleven, that is exactly what we get to see. I enjoyed watching how the practicality of life, the things we take for granted, fall apart surprisingly quickly.

We bemoaned the impersonality of the modern world, but that was a lie... it had never been impersonal at all. There had always been a massive delicate infrastructure of people, all of them working unnoticed around us, and when people stop going to work, the entire operation grinds to a halt.

No electricity, no running water, no cell phones, no internet, no transportation other than your own feet. No way to know if the people you love are alive or dead. And no way to reach them either way. It is frankly terrifying. I have little confidence in my own ability to survive and the thought of trying to keep my family alive is even worse. On the other hand, this book does bring up some interesting things to consider about survival, not least of which is the quality of the life we will live if we survive. One set of characters is a traveling troupe of actors and musicians and their motto is taken from an episode of Star Trek Voyager :

Survival is insufficient. 

The only complaint I had about this book was that the transitions between characters was abrupt and rather sharp, but I suppose that adds to the disjointed atmosphere the author was hoping to create. Also, the ending was awfully quick and left me wanting more. Perhaps that is a clever trick on the author's part, but I can't help but hope for a sequel. According to the author's website, that is highly unlikely. The good news is that she has sold the film rights, so we could possibly see this wonderful book on the big screen. If you haven't read this book yet, and I certainly waited too long, then get started now. I loved it.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

I Am Sophie Tucker by Susan and Lloyd Ecker

In 1973, Susan and Lloyd Ecker went on their first date to a Bette Midler concert. They had a wonderful time and especially loved Ms. Midler's Sophie Tucker stories. Over the next forty years, the Eckers married and had three children, but they never forgot Sophie Tucker and so they tried to learn as much about her as they could. Sophie Tucker was a vaudeville star and an extraordinary entertainer during the first half of the twentieth century. As Barbara Walters says, "She was the star attraction". The Eckers spent eight years reading Tucker's scrapbooks and interviewing her family and friends. What resulted from all of their research is I Am Sophie Tucker. According to an interview with the authors in the back of the book, Sophie was meticulous in her record keeping, but she loved to exaggerate and embellish. "At the end, not even Sophie knew the difference between truth and tall tale." The Eckers were unable to verify all of Sophie's stories and so they label their book "a fictional memoir".

I admit I found this confusing because I didn't realize until I had reached the authors' notes in the back of the book that this wasn't completely fictional. I thought I was reading a very well done fictional representation of a fictional character. When I reached the end and realized that a large portion of it was true, it changed my perspective quite a lot. According to the authors, "this volume is 85% fact. The other 15%... who knows?"

Included in this book are photos of Sophie Tucker and many are with her famous friends. Susan Ecker refers to Sophie as "the Forrest Gump of the first half of the 1900s." The whole time I was reading this book, I was thinking that very thing. Every famous person in the early age of the silver screen is in this book: Charlie Chaplin, W.C. Fields, "Bojangles" Robinson, Fanny Brice, Bob Hope, Jimmy Durante, Irving Berlin, Eddie Cantor, George Burns and Gracie Allen, and many more. If all this is true, Sophie Tucker may be the most entertaining woman of the entertainment world. Ever. And as she says in the Prologue:

...Every word [is] the absolute truth- or even better!

But the entertainment world isn't the only place Sophie made her mark, or her friends. Also mentioned in the pages of this memoir are Arthur Conan Doyle, Orville and Wilbur Wright, Al Capone, J. Edgar Hoover, Harry Houdini, Thomas Edison, Mark Twain, and Queen Elizabeth. That's a rather varied roster of acquaintances. 

This book is funny and fascinating. There are so many bits that made me laugh. Talking about heading to the west coast for a run of shows, Sophie had this to say of her travels:

The West was mesmerizing. I managed to hit a few of the tourist spots on the way to my first date. I saw the view from the top of Pike's Peak and I even rode down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon on a donkey. After bearing my load for eight hours, I'm sure they had to shoot that poor beast to put him out of his misery. It's a rare thing to get to kiss your own sorry ass goodbye.

And this about all her hard work to break in to show business:

By 1911, only the guys who built Big Ben had worked as hard as me to make the big time.

The best part of this book is that we get to see how hard Sophie had to work to actually make it. She is certainly no overnight success. She worked hard night and day and employed some very interesting tactics to get the attention of the people who could help her, but never did she give up.

In addition to this book, the first in a trilogy about Sophie's life, Susan and Lloyd Ecker have also created a documentary about her. You can view the official trailer here. I can't recommend enough that you look through the website the Eckers have created,, look at all the amazing photos they have in the gallery and then read this book. It is a fabulous journey through the foundations of music and entertainment as we know them today. 

Saturday, June 25, 2016

A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray

So many years ago, I picked up this book, A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray, at a library book sale. It sounded wonderful; the back of the book described it as "a vividly drawn portrait of the Victorian age, when girls were groomed for lives as rich men's wives...and the story of a girl who saw another way." It told of a young girl named Gemma with recent tragedy in her life and who had begun experiencing strange visions of other worlds. The problem is that you can't judge a book by its cover. And I mean that literally as the cover was my favorite part of this book.

I hate to sound mean about a book, but this one was just not very good at all. It was a great and terrible bore. So why did I read it? That's an excellent question. I have had no trouble whatsoever discontinuing a read I'm not enjoying. I've even been especially brutal during this last few months as I've made my way up Mount TBR, but for some reason, I kept at this one. I think it might be because it wasn't awful, it just wasn't good. If it had been awful I would have thrown it out right away, but I just kept hoping it was going to get better. It never did. Finally, I just skimmed the last one hundred pages, hoping for something to catch my attention or to just read enough of the resolution to feel satisfied that I had tried. The story had such potential, but the execution was sorely lacking.

This book is the first in a trilogy and sadly I can't recommend it. If I've gotten this wrong, I'm happy to hear why you think so. 

Thursday, June 9, 2016

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell

Years ago I heard about The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell while listening to NPR. I added it to my "want to read" list and I snatched it up a year or two later when I discovered it at a library book sale for only $3. Three or four years after finding such a great bargain, I finally read it this week. Oh, my. I really shouldn't have waited so long! Esme Lennox is a sixteen-year-old young woman who has just moved with her family to Edinburgh from India where she grew up in a British Colonist community. Always a bit different from girls her age, this is exponentially more obvious (and troublesome) once she begins attending school in Scotland. Having a daughter who doesn't fit it with her peers, like the same things they like, and want nothing more than to be married makes Esme's parents very unhappy. In a time where a woman could be committed to a mental hospital on only the recommendation of her father and her doctor, Esme is banished to just such a place with no one to speak up for her. Sixty-one years later (!!) the hospital is closing and the administration contacts Esme's next of kin, Iris, her great-niece. Iris has never heard of Esme and has always believed that her grandmother was an only child; believed it because it is exactly what her grandmother always told her.

Oh, my! What a book! Esme has the misfortune of independent thought at at time when women were just not allowed such things. Her character is wonderfully written, as is her sister, Kitty. We see only fractured bits of Kitty as she is an old woman suffering from Alzheimer's. Iris is slightly less interesting, but only when compared with how much Esme captured my attention.

I sped through this book and it was so difficult to put down. It was slightly dark, mysterious and full of drama. There are so many things that aren't explained and that are left to the reader's imagination. I think there is far more to Esme than the author reveals, but I can't be sure what exactly that might be. This is a book that will stay with me for a long time. I do hope you'll read it.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

The Girl Who Stopped Swimming by Joshilyn Jackson

The Girl Who Stopped Swimming by Johsilyn Jackson is the perfect way to begin the summer. It's a fun mystery set in the deep south bordering the panhandle of Florida. Laurel lives in a picture perfect neighborhood surrounded by gates that keep out the ghosts she's seen all her life. That is until one ghost awakens her to lead her to the body floating in her backyard pool. How did this young girl end up in Laurel's pool and why did her ghost appear in Laurel's bedroom? Was it an accident or has something more sinister found its way into Laurel's carefully built life of safety? The only person Laurel trusts to help her put things back the way she likes them is her unpredictable sister Thalia.

Oh, this book was fun to read. Mysteries aren't usually my thing, but there was something about this one that wouldn't let me put it down. Perhaps it was the family drama that can't be kept at bay. Or maybe it was the sheltered, suburban life turned upside down that hits a bit home for me. Either way, it was an irresistibly entertaining novel that I can't wait for someone else to read. And as much as I thought it was just a fun read, I was surprised by the well-written discussion questions at the back of the book. I could totally see a book club discussion surrounding this book. It was fun and there would be plenty to discuss. That sounds like the perfect summer book club pick to me!

Monday, May 30, 2016

Baby Catcher by Peggy Vincent

It was an accident! I really didn't mean to deviate from my Mount TBR plan, but I was at the library and I just ran across this book and I thought, "Oh, I'll just flip through it a bit." Well, that's not what happened. Baby Catcher by Peggy Vincent caught me as well. I was fascinated by the tale of a young woman in nursing school in the early 1960s finding her way to Obstetrics Nursing and then on to Midwifery. Just as Vincent unexpectedly became mesmerized by the world of Labor and Delivery, I was mesmerized by her telling of it.

I was hooked. I thought if I saw lots more babies born, perhaps I'd discover that missing bit of information, the secret of that enchanted moment when one person suddenly becomes two people.

Vincent wasn't the only one evolving during this time. During the 1960s, '70s and '80s, the philosophies surrounding birth changed dramatically. No longer were women being knocked out and waking to find a little stranger in their arms and Vincent found herself right in the middle of the revolution in Berkeley, California.

Women's bodies have near-perfect knowledge of childbirth; it's when their brains get involved that things can go wrong. When we force external rules on laboring women's behavior, their births may veer off track. The intrinsic intelligence of women's bodies can be sabotaged when they're put into clinical settings, surrounded by strangers, and attached to machines that limit their freedom to move. They then risk falling victim to the powerful forces of fear, loneliness, doubt, and distrust, all of which increase pain.

Vincent became part of the first group of nurses to labor women in Alta Bates Hospital's brand new birth center. These new methods ran hard up against the traditional practices of some of the doctors in the hospital, but she could see how well it benefited the women. Eventually she attended midwifery school and started her own private, home birth practice and even becoming the first Certified Nurse Midwife to have privileges at the hospital where she began her nursing career.

The stories Vincent shares of births she has attended both as a nurse and then as a midwife are wonderfully written and had me positively transfixed. This post would go on for days if I shared them all with you so really the only thing I can recommend is that you find a copy of this book and read it for yourself. It is fantastic!

I'll leave you with this one final quote while I wonder if maybe a career change isn't too late for me:

A midwifery school classmate once said to Vincent:
"As midwives, we meet wildly interesting people and stay up all night with them. We ask them questions about their sex lives, eat their food, feel inside their bodies, snoop around their houses, drink champagne at all hours, and best of all, we get to catch delicious little naked, wet babies. What I can't figure out is, why doesn't everyone want to be a midwife?"

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Such a Pretty Fat by Jen Lancaster

I am making excellent progress through my TBR pile! No really, it may not look like I've read tons and tons, but do you know what this challenge has made me do, besides read stuff I've had forever? It has made me be honest with myself about whether or not I'm actually going to read some of the books I have. And you know what? Some of those books I bought years and years ago at library book sales? I'm never going to read them. They may have been must-have books at $2 each, but there is a reason that every time I've picked them off my shelf and thought about reading them that I have then put them back because they just didn't appeal to me. There are far too many really good books out there to finish bad books. I used to power through even when I didn't like a book because I didn't want to miss something that might get better. And I didn't want to be a quitter, but I'm a grown up now (can it be true??) and I don't finish books I don't like. And you know what else? There are far too many really good books out there to even start bad books. If I have picked up a book numerous times and I still don't want to read it I know that I'll probably never want to read it and that has freed me to finally clear out my shelves a bit. It's quite liberating. I highly recommend it.

Ah, but on to my latest book from Mount TBR: Jen Lancaster's Such a Pretty Fat. It has been years since I read Lancaster's first book, Bitter is the New Black, but I really liked it. I can't tell you how long I've had this one, but it was about time I got to it. Oh, Jen Lancaster is hilarious and it's a bit frightening how similar our inner monologues can be. In her first book, she and her husband were fighting through a difficult financial time. In Such a Pretty Fat, Jen is fighting to lose the weight that has somehow appeared on her plaid-and-pearl-wearing frame. She admits that she may be a bit in denial about her appearance: 

I'm a hundred pounds heavier than I was in high school, my veins are full of creme fraiche, and yet I look in the mirror, take in the hair and makeup, and think, Damn baby, you fiiine.

When her doctor finally tells her that she absolutely has to do something about her weight, she is yanked into reality:

In painstaking detail, Dr. Awesome describes the number of agonizing, wasting ways I will die if I don't change my eating and fitness habits, like, immediately.

After several unsuccessful attempts at the Atkins diet, Jen realizes that the only way she will actually take her weight loss seriously is if she has a deadline and some accountability. Remembering a friend's suggestion that she write a weight loss book, Jen makes a book pitch to her agent in which she will detail her journey. Once her book is approved, her determination really does improve. She can't stand the idea of letting anyone down. If you think this will be another book where someone determines to loose weight and it is suddenly gone and you-just-need-to-try-try-try-really-hard-and-it-will-happen-for-you,-too, kind of books? Don't worry because it isn't. Jen experiences the same frustrations and hunger pangs we've all felt while trying to resist our favorite foods. And she also calls out the crazy that so often surrounds the weight loss industry.

This book was funny and entertaining and also motivating. I may not be quite a hundred pounds heavier than I was in high school, but I am interested in being healthier and I love the path that Jen chose. It's reasonable and achievable and still somehow funny. I will definitely be reading more Lancaster in the near future. 

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Saving Fish from Drowning by Amy Tan

Years ago I was a huge Amy Tan fan (that's fun to say!), but it's been a while since I've read anything from her. In my efforts to work through my TBR stacks, I picked up Saving Fish from Drowning. I bought this book from a library book sale so long ago that I can't even remember how long I've had it. It features a tour group of twelve people visiting China and Burma. Unfortunately, the person they all have in common, their tour leader Bibi dies just before the commencement of the trip and a substitute guide must fill in. While on this vacation, eleven of the tourists become lost in the Burmese jungle.

Interestingly for the reader, the story is told from the point of view of Bibi's ghost. This allows the reader to not only view the action as it takes place, but also to understand many of the motives as well as much of the history behind the scenes. Bibi watches as the new tour leader misunderstands the reasons behind the original itinerary and she understands the reasons behind all that befalls her friends. On the one hand, this allows the reader to understand so much more than what the characters understand. On the other hand, the reader gets an awful lot of information. This book was interesting, but it seemed a little heavy to me, as though I weren't making much progress. It held my interest and I wanted to read it, but I also often wanted the author to get on with it a bit. I feel terrible saying such a thing about Amy Tan, but this was not my favorite book of hers.

The one thing that can always be said of Amy Tan's books is that they bring a vivid visual of Asia and its many different cultures to the reader. There is nothing like reading one of her novels to make me want to book a flight on Cathay Pacific.

Monday, April 18, 2016

The Story Sisters by Alice Hoffman

The Story Sisters is the third book by Alice Hoffman that I have read and I don't know why I bothered. I didn't like the others that I read, but this one just sounded good. Oh, boy am I glad I didn't let the first two books influence me! I'm so happy I read this one.

The Story Sisters follows Elizabeth (Elv), Meg and Claire from the time they are little girls through early adulthood. The three sisters live with their mother in a beautiful home on Long Island, growing tomatoes in their garden and all three sleeping in the large attic bedroom so that they can all be together. Unfortunately, true to her style, Hoffman introduces an element of darkness early in the book and it follows the girls for the rest of the novel. As I reached this point, I seriously considered giving up on this book before it got worse (as I expected it would based on my past experience with her novels), but it was the storytelling that kept me reading. Elv is magnificently imaginative and she creates an entire fairy world, complete with its own language, that she shares with her sisters. I hate it when someone refers to a novel's "prose" because I generally feel like it sounds pretentious, but in this case there is no better description. The language is so lovely and the images conjured are beautiful and gripping and everything a reader could want.

This book is breathtaking and haunting and heartbreaking all at once. It has its moments that are enchanting, but it also has many that are ugly and awful. These sisters struggle and it is painful to watch, but as even the back of the book isn't afraid to let slip, they are redeemed in the end. This is the kind of book you will want to read late into the night and then it still won't be enough. I already feel the need to reread it and I think it would make an excellent book club book, perfect for discussion. Fair warning: arm yourself with tissues and don't read in public if you mind others seeing your ugly cry face. Yep, that happened to me.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson

Wintergirls by Lauire Halse Anderson is a book I have wanted to read for a long time. When I read Speak, I was moved far more than I expected to be. Wintergirls touches once again on the difficulty of being a teenage girl. In Speak, the topic was rape. In this novel, we are plunged inside the mind of a young woman suffering from an eating disorder. It is brutal. This book rips at the reader and pierces into her very bones. Lia is eighteen-years-old and she already has two stays at an inpatient hospital for eating disorders under her belt. She is weighed at home to monitor her recovery, but she has found ways around that as well. As the book progresses the reader watches Lia's weight continue to fall; it is heartbreaking. Her struggles with food are gut wrenching. How can she survive on so little?

I loved this book, but at the same time I was a bit frightened by it. I worry that a young girl might read this book and see it as a kind of instruction manual. Certainly the horrors of anorexia are described, but I would recommend reading this yourself before giving it to your teen. At the same time, I think this is a book that needs to be read. I am adding it to my list of books that should be required reading. This is a topic that deserves attention and understanding.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald

I absolutely love it when I come across a book that I like so much that I can't wait to gift it to several friends. The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald is exactly that kind of book. Ms. Bivald is Swedish and The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend is her first book. It was published in Sweden in 2013 but is now sold in 25 countries, including the one in which it is set, the US. Lucky us!

The protagonist, Sara, is also Swedish and like her creator a great lover of books. Having recently lost her long-time position as a clerk in a bookshop due to it's closure, Sara travels to tiny (and dying) Broken Wheel, Iowa, to finally meet her pen pal Amy. The plan is for Sara to spend three months living with Amy and continuing their mutual love of books in person; a reading holiday, as Sara calls it. Sadly, these best laid plans fall apart upon Sara's arrival as she discovers Amy has just died! (Don't worry, that's not a spoiler. It happens in the first few pages.) Not wanting to turn around and go home and needing something to do with herself, Sara opens a bookshop on the nearly deserted Main Street with Amy's enormous book collection. It isn't long before Sara falls in love with this small town and it's inhabitants. She begins to grow on them as well.

First, I love that the relationship between Sara and Amy is that of pen pals. This certainly isn't something that we hear about very often anymore. They are true letters-written-on-stationary pen pals. No email. And even better, they send books back and forth to one another.

Sara had never believed that you had to meet someone in person to be friends- many of her most rewarding relationships had been with people who didn't even exist.

Luckily, we don't miss out on Amy all together. Included in the book are letters that Amy has written to Sara over the course of their friendship. We learn so much about her and about the lovely and interesting people of Broken Wheel. 

Of course I tend to love books about book lovers. Those are my people, after all. Sara thinks many of the things that we book lovers have all thought at one time or another. She is able to explain why we love books so much.

With books, she could be whoever she wanted, wherever she wanted. She could be tough, beautiful, charming; she could come up with the perfect line at the perfect moment, and she could...experience things.

Isn't that exactly why we all love to read?

There are so many wonderful bits of this book that I'd love to share with you, but I think you would be far better served by just going out and picking up your own copy. And may I recommend you try a real, paper copy so that you can do as Sara recommends:

"Have you ever smelled a book?... Open it properly.... You need to be able to shove your nose into it.... Can you smell it? The scent of new books. Unread adventures. Friends you haven't met yet, hours of magical escapism awaiting you."

Perfectly stated.

*This book was provided to me in the form of an e-galley in exchange for an honest review.*

Monday, March 28, 2016

The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster by Scott Wilbanks

The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster by Scott Wilbanks was one of the most fun books I've read in a long time. First of all- page one is a dictionary explanation of the word lemoncholy. Of course it sounds slightly familiar, but no, it isn't a word you've likely heard. The official definition is as follows:

The habitual state in which one makes the best of a bad situation.


A fabrication of the author's twisted mind that combines the phrase "if life gives you lemons" with the word melancholy to represent the state of being where one makes the best of a bad situation.

Already knew I was going to like this book. That is a brilliant word and a concept I am going to attempt to incorporate into my life. 

Annabelle (Annie) Aster lives in San Francisco in 1995, though she is a bit eccentric in that she prefers older things: clothes, her home, her manners. Of course in San Francisco eccentric is the norm so no one much questions her. When suddenly one day her back garden is replaced by an 1890s Kansas wheat field and its small cabin, even she is surprised. By way of the mail box that stands between her home and the cabin, Annie exchanges letters with the old woman, Elsbeth, who lives there. In 1895.

Yes, at first I thought this sounded a little like the Keanu Reeves/ Sandra Bullock movie The Lake House, but it was better. The letters they send back and forth are full of humor and I love that it is two women who form a trans-generational friendship rather than a sappy romance. The excitement builds when they discover a murder will be/ has been committed and they attempt to prevent it. Also included in the book are friends of these two main characters that add lots of love and depth. Annie's best friend, Christian, has many of the book-loving habits I see in myself. I'll bet you do, too.

Christian was something of a reading opportunist....He read while he ate breakfast. He read on his lunch break. He read before he slipped off to sleep each night. He even read while crossing Church Street, ignorant of gathering rain clouds- not the most brilliant activity if his aim was survival.

Annie thinks the world of Christian and wants him to be happy. She offers him this fantastic piece of advice:

"Promise me you won't sacrifice your happiness for something as cheap as acceptance," she begged as he backtracked to the refrigerator. "Find your courage, Christian. To hell with everyone else."

I love when I find friends and kindred spirits in books. Isn't this why we love reading so much? They may not be real people, but within the pages of books, if I'm very lucky, I find my people.

Possibly my favorite quote of the book comes from Elsbeth in one of her letters to Annie, explaining why she was asked to retire as a school teacher:

I cut off an unenlightened (and smelly!) young man by saying, "Johnny! Didn't your mom ever teach you not to speak with your mouth full of stupid?"

How great is that quote?!

I really liked this book. It was the perfect vacation read- we were in New Zealand. I was thrilled when I finished and was reading the interview with the author at the back of the book and discovered that he is an American ex-pat living in New Zealand! What a wonderful coincidence. And I can't say I blame him for his move. New Zealand is absolutely wonderful! As is this book- pick it up soon!

*This book was provided to me in the form of an e-galley in exchange for an honest review.*

Slated by Teri Terry

I'm not sure if I've mentioned it, but I love books. No, really- I do. And my love of books has caused me to not just buy and read books, but to be involved in many book-related activities. One of these activities has been volunteering at school book fairs. At one of our schools, I had a really good in with the school librarian (Librarian's Pet, party of one!) and she would always give me coupons to spend in the book fair. She knew the way to my heart. Today's post is about one book that I bought with some of those lovely coupons.

Slated by Teri Terry is about a sixteen-year-old girl named Kyla. She is about to meet her parents. Except they aren't her real parents and she really is meeting them for the first time. Kyla is part of a rehabilitation program for terrorists. If the convicted terrorist is young enough, he or she is taken into this program where his or her memory and personality are erased. This squashes any terroristic behaviors and makes the person moldable into a productive member of society. Or at least that is how it is supposed to work.

This book was a fun read that aims to encourage the reader to ask questions, both about the characters in the book and the people around us in real life. Just because someone tells us something is true doesn't make it so. It also encourages us to contemplate what makes us who we are. Our past experiences all add up to the people we have become and without those memories we lose who we might have been. There is a bit of a conspiracy theory at work in the novel and the reader wonders, along with Kyla, whom it is safe to trust. While not quite on par with The Hunger Games, it was still good fun. Slated is the first in a trilogy that I may or may not find time to finish. The finale certainly sounds interesting so that's encouraging. Have you read this series? Should I continue?