Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Reading With Patrick

Title:  Reading with Patrick: A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship
Author:  Michelle Kuo
Publication Information:  Random House. 2017. 320 pages.
ISBN:  081299731X / 978-0812997316

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "I went to the Mississippi Delta with a specific project:  to teach American history through black literature."

Favorite Quote:  "The idea that you can change somebody's life for the better is powerful. It looms, in particular, over the debate about teachers. Are they good or bad, cheats or saints, unfairly demonized or blindly exalted? Underpinning these opposed portraits is the debate over the nature of the student. One side of the argument claims the student is an impressionable blank slate, a tabula rasa onto which teachers - if they're good enough, smart enough, and they care enough - can effectively imprint their passions and knowledge. The other side argues that the student is already permanently formed by his conditions - by violence, by neglect, by poverty. No teacher can change his life. Neither side can be completely true. "

Here is the story summarized. Michelle Kuo, the daughter of first generation Taiwanese immigrants, grows up in relative security and prosperity. The family focuses on education and solid careers. Ms. Kuo graduates from Harvard and is unsure of the path she wants to take. While figuring things out, she joins the Teach for America program and is sent to a school in Helena, Arkansas. There, she encounters one of poorest communities in the country. It is a community that is ridden with poverty, crime, and racial divides. She teaches for two years and then leaves to pursue law school and her own life forward. Knowledge that one of her students stands accused of killing someone brings her back to Arkansas while he awaits trial. That is the time spent "reading with Patrick."

What I appreciate about this book is that it talks about what is so often not talked about in the United States - the poverty, the racial divide, and the inequity in the justice system. These are the issues so thoughtfully and poignantly dealt with in books such as Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward and Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. This book most reminds me of An Invisible Thread, which is also a story of an unlikely connection between people and the impact it can have.

I began this book prepared to love it and prepared to be moved by it. Unfortunately, for several reasons, this book was not for me. Reading with Patrick has very little about reading or about Patrick. This book is very much Michelle Kuo's story. It speaks to her immigrant background, family concerns, and cultural expectations. Those all come into play as many who surround her do not understand her choice to teach.

This book is about a young woman finding herself independent of family; her journey happens to intersect with this community and this young man. She comes as and remains an outsider to the community in Helena, Arkansas. It speaks about the poverty, crime, and racial divides in Helena, Arkansas but as it touches her life and not as a social commentary. Then, the page turns, and her journey continues without them. Michelle Kuo's journey is an interesting one as it mirrors the path of many young people, but just not the one I was expecting.

The subtitle of this book also uses the term life-changing friendship, but from reading the book, friendship is not what comes across. Pity perhaps. Guilt at a secure, prosperous life perhaps. A momentary connection but not friendship. This thought is reinforced by a little research on the background of this book. Very little is found about Patrick, but much can be read about Michelle Kuo. In fact, the base of this book can be found in a 2009 article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. The book acknowledges that the initial article was written without permission from Patrick and even without his knowledge. I leave this book wondering what was Patrick's story and what happened to Patrick and how Patrick's life changed because Michelle Kuo was a part of it for a time.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Wildling Sisters

Title:  The Wildling Sisters
Author:  Eve Chase
Publication Information:  G.P. Putnam's Sons. 2017. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0399174133 / 978-0399174131

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "None of us can bear to touch his belt, so horrifyingly intimate."

Favorite Quote:  "It does feel like we have as many lies, forced to adjust our manners and allegiances according to the different worlds we inhabit, learning to say the right thing or not reveal too much."

The English countryside. An old house. Two time periods. A group of women. Mothers and daughters. Sisters. A mystery. This book has the perfect fixings for an enjoyable summer beach read.

Flora, Pam, Dot and the narrator Margot are the Wildling sisters. They are being raised by their eccentric and rather high maintenance mother. She packs them off to their aunt and uncle's house, Applecote Manor, in the country so she can go off and pursue other opportunities in Morocco! This moves comes with challenges and opportunities all its own for the girls. The home, though lovely, is a somber one because the daughter of the house Audrey vanished one day. She was never found, and her disappearance was never resolved. Her mother still holds out hope that her daughter will return; meanwhile, a house and a life becomes a living shrine. The neighboring estate on the other hand is home to handsome young men, who present a world of opportunities for the Wildling sisters who are on the brink of seeking relationships. What happened to Audrey and what happens to these young women during this summer is the story of the past.

Fast forward several decades. Applecote Manor sits empty and is sold to a couple looking to make a complete change in lifestyle. Jesse falls in love with the house and falls in love with the idea of her own home without the shadow of her husband's first wife lingering in every corner. She comes with her husband, her biological young daughter, and her teenage stepdaughter Bella. Bella is fifteen and still engulfed in the grief of her mother's death. The relationships between husband and wife and between stepmother and stepdaughter are fraught with conflicting emotions.

The mystery surrounding the house - that of Audrey's disappearance and that of the summer of the Wildling sisters - adds a counterpoint. For Jesse and her stepdaughter, it both adds to the fear in their relationship and conversely provides a way to connect that is not tied directly into the emotions of their own relationsihp.

The book starts off with a bang with a description of a body being dragged. It then slows considerably as the Gothic setting is described and the backstory of the past and the present is set up. It then picks up speed towards the middle and the end with some unexpected twists and turns.

Jesse and Bella's story is the stereotypical one of a rebellious, hurt teen and an adult working to get through and make a connection. Both characters act true to type, and the story resolves as you would expect. It is meant to be a current story, but reads as though they are also of a time in the past.

The story of the past and of the Wildling sisters themselves takes a much more unexpected path, making this the more intriguing of the two time periods. The Gothic impression of the house and the Gothic overtones to the story add an enjoyable atmosphere to this book about strong women in difficult situations making the tough choices.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Before Everything

Title:  Before Everything
Author:  Victoria Redel
Publication Information:  Viking. 2017. 288 pages.
ISBN:  0735222576 / 978-0735222571

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "On a late March day when you could taste springs muddy tang, Anna was given results from the latest scans."

Favorite Quote:  "You couldn't get away with anything. Which was, of course, horrible and the very best things about having been friends forever."

The description of this book checks so many boxes of a sweet, nostalgic summer read. It is a story about women and about friendships that have lasted a lifetime. It is a story about family. It is a story about strong emotions as one woman enters hospice care, and the friends and family who surround her deal with that reality and try to make the most of the time left.

Anna is dying. Her friends, particularly best friends and "The Old Friends" Helen, Caroline, Molly, and Ming, gather around for grief, for comfort, and for support. Anna's family, particularly her estranged husband Reuben is also part of Anna's caregivers. The book weaves between the present of everyone waiting for Anna's impending death and of everyone's journey through the memories of their friendship with Anna and of their own life.

This should have been a powerful book. Sadly, for me, it misses the mark for several reasons.

First is the character of Anna herself. Sadly, Anna is not a very likable character, making it challenging to invest in her story. Her terrible diagnosis and the fact that she is in hospice care is sad and devastating, but nothing else in the book binds the reader to her. One of the chapters in the book describes her own shortcomings:

  • She'd preferred attractive people. A lot more. When she'd made friends with a woman who wasn't beautiful, she felt embarrassed to be out with her. But also a a little proud of herself. As if that showed largess.
  • She hadn't read enough books for someone who considered herself cultured. There were years she didn't read at all. She wasn't interested in difficult narratives.
  • She saw everyday situations hierarchically. Whose kids were smarter? Whose kids struggled more socially? Who were the athletes, the artists?

This is a book centered around Anna's sad situation, but Anna's story becomes one I am not interested in. I feel sadness and pity for her situation, but I don't find any emotional attachment to the character.

Second is the fact that the book is not just about Anna's story. Each of her friends brings her own perspective, her own baggage, and her own story. The result is a scattered focus, jumping between all these lives that are jumbled together. That is indeed how friendships in real life are - messy and mixed up, but, in a book, sometimes less is more

Third is the writing style. The book is written in short, choppy sections with some only a few sentences long. Perspectives shift, and narrators shift, creating a discordant and hurried note through story that is really a quiet journey towards an ending. The writing style adds to the feeling of too many things mixed together in the book. Yet, at the same point, the pace seems rather slow because the entire book is somewhat about waiting for a person to die.

Sadly, my reaction to the book matches the reaction of Reuben to the situation in the book. "Reuben wanted it over. Not Anna dead. Jesus, he wasn't a complete asshole. but he wanted this dying to end."

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Lying to Children

Title:  Lying to Children
Author:  Alex Shahla
Publication Information:  Fitzwilde LLC. 2017. 344 pages.
ISBN:  0997796529 / 978-0997796520

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Dear Annabelle and Peter, Not all books start at the end, but this one does."

Favorite Quote:  "Never forget, I love you just as much on your worst day as I do on your best day."

This book had me laughing on page 1, and I really did not stop until the end. The book defines itself on its first page:  "This is my side of the story. On day when you tell your future significant others, children, or therapists what horrible parents your mother and I were and how we ruined your lives, this book might help to exonerate us. It's what people who make mistakes call 'context.' And I've made plenty of mistakes, so I'm definitely in need of a lot of content. What follows is a series of vignettes - let's call them explanations for my actions, which often lack reason and always lack foresight - of what really happened while your mother and I were raising you."

What are the "lies" parents tell their children? In this book they cover the range of childhood. Daddy loves his job. If I kiss it, it will make it better. If you put a tooth under your pillow, a magical fairy will bring you money. The dog went to live on a farm with your goldfish where they'll have more room to run around. The doctor is not going to hurt you. I'm happy you moved out of the house and are going to college. These are some of the fifteen "lies" around which this book is based. As the beginning of the book suggests, each one can stand alone, like a collection of essays with a memoir like quality. That makes this book easy to pick up and put down. It also makes it more challenging to read all the way through quickly because there is a similarity to all the vignettes. Individually, they are all funny and fun to read so treat it as more a collection of stories and less a book to be read start to end.

So, my context in reading and reviewing this book. I am a parent and have personally lived through stories such as these. So, I totally relate to the parent in the book. I have my own stories of my children's childhoods and the things we did or did not do as parents to keep them safe and happy and to raise them into decent human beings. It continues to be a work in progress.

What I really appreciate about the book is the repeated refrain of love throughout the book. The words "I love you" are repeated often. The feeling is reflected in all the myriad of things this father is willing to do for the joy of his children. That again is something I totally relate to, and that I hope my children always see. Underlying everything - whether it be silliness, fun, anger, disappointment - is unconditional love.

Interestingly, I enjoy this book as a parent, but I plan on sharing it with my children. I think adult children, even those who are not parents themselves, will see and appreciate the humor in the other side of the story. Finding a book that appeals to me and that I think will also appeal to my children is always a wonderful thing. Book discussions sometimes spur the best conversations that go far and beyond the book, and it is always joyful to find laughter to share. That is no lie.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Best of Adam Sharp

Title:  The Best of Adam Sharp
Author:  Graeme Simsion
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Press. 2017. 336 pages.
ISBN:  1250130409 / 978-1250130402

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "If my life prior to February 15, 2012, had been a song, it might have been 'Hey Jude,' a simple piano tune, taking my sad and sorry adolescence and making it better."

Favorite Quote:  "And know your BATNA ... Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement. What you'll end up with if the deal falls over - if the opportunity hadn't come along in the first place. The rule is:  don't make a deal unless it's going to give you a better future than you'll have without it."

First things first. The Best of Adam Sharp is nothing like The Rosie Project or The Rosie Effect. Yes, the book is centered on one main male character. That's about the only similarity. So, remove that expectation and then decide if this is a book for you.

Adam Sharp is a middle aged man in a long-term committed relationship. The book moves back and forth between two periods in his life - the present when an old flame who is not his current partner reaches out to him after twenty years and twenty years previously when that flame was still new.

Adam Sharp met Angelina Brown when he was on a work assignment in Australia. He was in Australia temporarily. She was living with her fame as an actress. She was also married. Sparks flew, and a relationship ensued.

Fast forward twenty years. Adam's relationship with Angelina was not to be. He is back home in England in a relationship with Claire. They have been together for years and are comfortable together. "We were a functioning household. We didn't fight; we enjoyed meals together on the weekends; we look out for each other. Good friends. Nobody writes songs about those things, but there is a lot to be said for them." However, are sparks still flying? That question becomes even bigger when out of the blue, Angelina reaches out to Adam again.

He is in a relationship. She is married. Where is this to lead? A trip down memory lane. A mid-life crisis. A regret for the path not taken. A dream of what might have been. A game of what if. A ditching of current responsibilities to run off into the sunset. The answer could be any one of these.

The book takes a circuitous and sometimes odd route getting there, but the end packages the answer in a nice neat package. Some of the turns, however, particularly the role of Angelina's husband and what happens in France, are not really for me. To paraphrase a saying, what happens in France stays in France. To each, his or her own. Unfortunately, that turn really takes the book in a direction, going from a sweet, reflective story about relationships and turns into a book on sexual encounters of a kind most definitely not for me. It's odd, not in keeping with Graeme Samson's other writing, and unnecessary to the story. It turns a memory of a young love into something else entirely.

A saving grace of the book is that the book has a soundtrack. As the author's notes says, "it is also a nod to the music and musicians that contributed so much to the life of my generation. If you don't know the songs in this book, I encourage you to download them and listen as you read:  there is a playlist at the end." The playlist is pretty long and has many songs that I know and enjoy. The playlist  exists in a number of online music services. Just search the name of the book. So, I took the author's advice and listened while I read. The book may not have been for me, but much of the playlist is.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Trophy Son

Title:  Trophy Son
Author:  Douglas Brunt
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Press. 2017. 288 pages.
ISBN:  1250114802 / 978-1250114808

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "In the end, man shapes the world, but the world gets the first crack at us."

Favorite Quote:  "I wondered then what hero meant. what does it take to be the hero of your own life? choice, certainly. You have to be in charge of  your life to be the hero of it. What if you make bad choices, or just-below-average choices? Do you need to reach the cheese to be the hero, and then what the hell is the cheese anyway? Self understanding? Happiness? A Wimbledon title? Could the cheese be to perform one noble act in an otherwise unremarkable life spent not in charge of it?"

First, a disclaimer. I enjoy watching tennis, but am not an avid fan tracking the sport. I am not that avid a fan of any sport, but I do enjoy watching a good competition in any sport. As such, my reading of the book clearly differs from that of an avid tennis fan. In other words, as with any other book, the reader's background impacts their enjoyment. This is true of any book, but I feel the topic of this one merits a disclaimer.

Second, another disclaimer. This book is a work of fiction even though the first person narration makes it sound like a memoir. In addition, reference is made by name to actual major, world class tennis players. References are made to their choices which I have never heard in the news or heard associated with those names. Substance abuse is a serious business. It might be naive to think that major sports are all clean, and this book is clearly marketing as fiction. However, the name-dropping adds nothing to the story, but even fiction should be limited in the liberties it takes while naming names and alleging wrongdoing.

Disclaimers aside, I read this book more for the family story than the sports story. Anton Stratis is not your average teenager. He has been groomed to be an elite tennis player and to fulfill the dream of winning that this parents as former Olympic athletes could not achieve. Anton practises for hours on end. Tennis takes precedence over school. Tennis takes precedence over friends. Tennis takes precedence over family. Pretty much, tennis takes precedence over everything. In a nutshell, tennis has been Anton's entire life as directed by his father. As Antons grows up, he wishes for what he feels is a more "normal" life of school, parties, friends, and relationship. 

The description of the book leads more towards the family story not the sports story. I expect it to center on Anton's relationship with his father, his father's drive to make his son a star, and the son's struggle to assert his independence. The book does begin with that, but as the book progresses, the relationship hovers on the periphery of the story. This book really becomes about Anton growing up in the world of elite athletes. It is about the choices he makes as his life expands beyond the world of tennis. It begins as a child rebelling against a parent and ends with an adult make choices about the path of his life.

The book is quick read. It is an easy read. The dynamics between Anton, his parents, and his brother are interesting. The details of tennis are voluminous. As a whole, this is a book about extremes. The father's focus on practice is to the point of abuse. The girlfriend is famous and driven in her own career. The substance abuse problem not just exists but extends to everyone. The choices is all or nothing. Everything is an extreme, which in turn means that nothing stands out. Interesting but perhaps a little over the top.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Roanoke Girls

Title:  The Roanoke Girls
Author:  Amy Engel
Publication Information:  Crown. 2017. 288 pages.
ISBN:  1101906669 / 978-1101906668

Book Source:  I received this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "The first time I saw Roanoke was in a dream."

Favorite Quote:  "As a little girl I'd tried to please, tried to live by a simple refrain my mother repeated  like a desperate prayer in my ear:  be good be good be good. But I'd known even then it wouldn't work..."

Jane, Sophia. Penelope. Eleanor. Camilla. Emmeline. Allegra. Lane. These are the Roanoke girls with Allegra and Lane being the youngest generation. Roanoke is a family home that "looked like something an insane person would build..." Lane comes to Roanoke for the first time as a teenager when her mother's death leaves her orphaned. At that time, Allegra is the only other Roanoke girl in residence. Lane loses her mother as a teenager while Allegra lost her as a toddler. Lane has known another life while Roanoke is all Allegra has.

Their grandparents Yates and Lilian are raising them both. A friendship blossoms between Lane and Allegra. So does a rivalry as is likely to happen at that age. Lane also learns the dark history of the Roanoke girls. They either run or die. All of them. Things happen; a rift happens; and Lane leaves, promising never to return. Lane runs.

Fast forward many years. Lane finally returns for Allegra has disappeared. Did she die or did she run? What underlies the darkness at Roanoke? Set in a small town in Kansas, that is the premise of this book. This premise underlies many a wonderful family and small town stories. Like other books in the genre, the book moves between past and present. Reading such a book is the process of slowly peeling back the years of history to finally get at the answer. Sometimes, the answer is satisfactory and sometimes not. More often than not, the process of getting there makes for an interesting read.

The biggest issue with this book is that it drops a bombshell near the beginning of the book as to the reason for the history of the Roanoke girls. It's difficult to discuss without a spoiler, but let's just say, the answer is a disturbing topic so reader beware. More than that, its placement in the book removes much of the mystery surrounding these young women and, as such, removes much of the interest from the book. Even more than that, after the big reveal, the book proceeds in a relatively predictable manner; no further surprises really come except for the extent to which the darkness prevailed in that household. Even at the end, the books wraps up this twisted family into a neat package of hope for the future - neither satisfying not realistic. Although not graphic, the repeated explanations of what happens at Roanoke conjures up disturbing images I wish I could unsee.

The crux of engaging in a book about an emotionally charged topic is engaging with the characters. The characters in this book fall into four groups. The townspeople who have no idea what goes on in their midst. Those who suffer. Those who inflict suffering. Those who watch and allow it to happen. The book is narrated through Lane's eyes who falls into one of these groups, but I fin her a difficult character to engage with. She is one of the Roanoke girls but perhaps not the most interesting one. Through her eyes, the rest of the story then becomes a distanced and somewhat limiting view.

 All these things combined with the unpalatable topic makes this a challenge book to finish.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.