Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope, and Repair

Title: Stitches:  A Handbook on Meaning, Hope, and Repair
Author:  Anne Lamott
Publication Information:  Riverhead Hardcover. 2013. 112 pages.

Book Source:  I read this book because of an interest in the author's work.

Favorite Quote:  "The search is the meaning, the search for beauty, love, kindness and restoration in this difficult, wired and often alien modern world. The miracle is that we are here, that no matter how undone we've been the night before, we wake up every morning and are still here. It is phenomenal just to be."

Stitches is a discussion on a search for meaning in life - the different ways in which we search, what can bring us meaning, and what we can to do to see a deeper meaning even in the most ordinary things.

Throughout, the book uses the metaphor of stitches - of sewing a life together with pieces from all around us, of darning the holes, and of picking up stitches that fall. The author weaves in examples from her own life and from conversations with others.

Earlier this year I read another of Anne Lamott's books Help Thanks Wow. I thought that book would have been better as an article or essay.

This book I enjoy much more. It feels like a conversation with a friend. I also really appreciate the "stitches" metaphor. I knit, and I sew a little. So, those words and concepts speak to me. So, the ideas and are not new, but the presentation is one that appeals to me.

This book is very short and a very quick read. Well worth a look if the genre appeals to you.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Weight of Blood: A Novel

Title:  The Weight of Blood:  A Novel
Author:  Laura McHugh
Publication Information:  Spiegel & Grau. 2014. 320 pages.

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

Favorite Quote:  "You grow up feeling the weight of blood, of family. There's no forsaking kin. But you can't help when kin forsakes you or when strangers come to be family."

Lucy Dane is growing up in a small town. The townspeople still speak of how her mother disappeared when Lucy was very young. It was a mystery that was never solved.

Now, Lucy's friend Cheri has disappeared and is found murdered. Are the two events related? Is it a coincidence? Is there more going on in this sleepy little town than meets the eye? Lucy sets out to discover the truth. What she finds about herself, her family, and her community is beyond what she could have imagined.

Without giving a spoiler, I did not expect this book to end up where it did or take on the issues that it did. Henbane is described as a small town in the middle of the Ozark Mountains. The plot line is very unexpected given the small-town, rural setting.

The book goes back and forth between two perspectives - Lila as she arrives alone in the town on Henbane and Lucy as she seeks to determine what happened to her mother and to Cheri. Since so many of the characters are the same in both time periods, I found myself sometimes getting a little lost in the story. I had to make sure I read the chapter heading and focused on the names to remember whose story I was in.

A serious and sad book about family and violence. A well-written debut novel. I do look forward to see what Laura McHugh writes next.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Visionist

Title: The Visionist:  A Novel
Author:  Rachel Urquhart
Publication Information:  Little, Brown and Company. 2014. 352 pages.

Book Source:  I received this book through the GoodReads First Reads program free of cost in exchange for an honest review. The book arrived as a paperback advance reader copy.

Favorite Quote:  "No tale stands along, for just as one cannot speak of the future without paying due reverence to the past, one cannot sing the ballad of a single life."

Polly Kimball is a fifteen year old growing up in the 1800s in Massachusetts. She lives on a farm with her mother, her younger brother, and her abusive father. They barely scrape by, and Polly lives in constant fear of and constant anger against her father. One day, things come to a head, and Polly sets fire to the family farm, killing her father. She escapes with her mother and brother.

It is then that the mother May seems to awaken from years of abuse. She brings Polly and her brother to a Shaker community and leaves them there for she thinks that they will be cared for in way that she is unable to. The community is one of strict rules and very certain ways.

This, however, is also a time in which certain Shaker communities have received mystical visions. Polly seems to be blessed with these visions at the City of Hope, and as such, gains prominence in the community. She has told no one of her past and struggles with that secret. Sister Charity, an orphan raised in the community since infancy, becomes Polly's friend. Polly's story becomes one you read often - abuse and its terrible consequences.

Around Polly's story are other stories. Charity faces her own struggles to surrender to the rules of the community and to not let emotions get in the way of her service and her obedience to the rules. Simon Pryor is the man investigating the fire at the Kimball farm, but has his own history. I don't see how the details of his story truly contribute to the book. I would rather have known more about the other characters.

The one story that I feel is missing from the book is May's story. She is perhaps the most interesting character in the book, but not developed at all. Here is a young woman who falls into a bad marriage. She puts up with abuse for years and allows her children to be abused. Once she escapes, she also becomes the force to attempt to save her children. I wish the author had explored her story more.

An interesting tale, but one that explores certain story lines too much and leaves other more interesting ones undeveloped.

Monday, December 23, 2013


Title:  Fakebook
Author:  Dave Cicirelli
Publication Information:  Sourcebooks. 2013. 320 pages.

Book Source:  I read this book because of an interest in social media and the interesting premise of this experiment.

Favorite Quote:  "It struck me that 'having to ask' was soon going to join ranks of the mix tapes and 'Be kind, rewind' - a relic of another time. How rare is it now that we have to ask? Facebook in its simple grayed-out text, does the asking for us every time we log in: 'What's on your mind?'

Such a simple question and so effective. With no other prompting or incentive, we answer volumes. We're a billion voices, speaking at once, contributing to a thorough autobiography of our times and writing it in the moment. We're constantly report in on ourselves and others - what we like, where we are, who we are with, how we feel. In shot, we answer Facebook's question.

And Facebook catalogs every answer. Each post and every photo is stamped with a time, a place, and an ID. I mean ... we 'tag' each other in our photos, for Christ's sake. We make sure no detail goes unrecorded.

The scale of this gave me pause and frightened me a little. It still does."

Dave Cicirelli was on Facebook, as our million of other people. He got tired of seeing two things -  how wonderful other people's lives sounded or how much minutia people chose to share. On almost a whim, he decided to start an experiment - creating a fictitious life for himself - and see what happened. What happened and where it led went beyond what he could ever have imagined.

The basis of his fictitious life begins as he announces that he is quitting his job and walking cross country. He is tech savvy and able to create pictures and tell stories about where he is walking. Soon, it gets more complicated than he imagined.

Soon, he has two lives - the fictitious one and the real one. Soon after, his "real" life becomes about giving validity to the fictitious one. Who knows it's a hoax? Who can, therefore, provide comments to add validity? Where can't he go and who can't he see to avoid discovery? How much of his real life is spending keeping up this fiction?

In addition, his fictitious life begins to have a very real effect on people. He gets messages of admiration for having the courage to take off in that manner. He gets messages of criticisms from those who wonder how he can be so irresponsible to just walk away.

He keeps this up for six month. On April's Fools Day, he announces that it was all experiment. Again, he gets messages of both admiration and criticism, and he finds himself a changed person.

This book is a fascinating look at the far-reaching impact of social media. How much of what you read is real? How much do you believe? Do any of us truly understand how far our own impact reaches when we put something on a social media site? Do any of us know how we sound or come across and how different that is from our original intent? All questions all of us would do well to think about.

I do know that for me, my blog would not exist without the existence of cyberspace and social media. I write for me, but I love when I know that what I write reaches people. Just so you know, my reviews are my honest opinion, and not a hoax.

Friday, December 20, 2013


Title:  Divergent
Author:  Veronica Roth
Publication Information:  HarperCollins Publishers Inc. 2011. 496 pages.

Book Source:  I read this book based on the publicity for the entire series.

Favorite Quote:  "I believe in ordinary acts of bravery, in the courage that drives one person to stand up for another."

Beatrice Prior lives in Chicago - a dystopian Chicago of the future. The society has been divided into factions based on certain personality characteristics and the development of that characteristic.

Abnegation focuses on being selfless. Amity focuses on remaining peaceful. Candor focuses on valuing honesty. Erudite focuses on learning. The Dauntless are the brave.

At age 16, all children of all factions are tested to determine the appropriate faction choice. Then, they are allowed to choose.

Beatrice is born into Abnegation, but on her sixteenth birthday, makes a surprising choice to leave her family. What follows is her trial period and training for her new faction. Along the way comes rumblings of dissatisfaction among the factions, and ideas that perhaps things should be different. Choices made impact Beatrice's future, her family, and perhaps the future of the society as a whole.

The target audience for this book is the young adult market. This story is engaging and entertaining. It certainly pulls you in and is action packed. The plot line for this book is very brief, occurring at the beginning when Beatrice makes her choice and towards the end - which I won't say to avoid a spoiler. The remainder of the book is focused on the often violent, competitive training for Beatrice and her group of initiates.

The action, and the sometimes violent descriptions of the action, take over the story. These sequences become the center point of the book rather than the plot line. That, for me, was the difficult part of the book. I am interested enough to read book 2 to see if and how the story develops further, but I hope that the following books focus more on a plot.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013


Title:  Winners
Author:  Danielle Steel
Publication Information:  Delacorte Press, Random House Publishing Group, Random House LLC, Penguin Random House Company. 2013. 239 pages.

Book Source:  I read this book just because.

Favorite Quote:  "We can't protect them, or even ourselves. Life happens. We make the best of it .... That's all you can do."

Lily Thomas is a young woman training for the US Olympic ski team. She is that good, and has dedicated that much of her life to the sport. Bill Thomas is her fathers - a widower, a successful business man, and a man whose world revolves around his daughter.

One day, a tragic accident alters Lily and Bill's life forever. This book is about what comes after - about rebuilding a life when all that you dream of and live for can no longer be. Surrounding Lily and Bill are the doctors, co-workers, and friends - each with their own story and their own need for starting over.

This book offers a lot of what Danielle Steel fans expect. The people are beautiful. Some, if not many, are "that kind of rich." Things have a way of working out.

What I enjoy about this book is that it has a consistent theme running across the different characters in different situations. The theme of starting over - after death of a loved one, after illness, after catastrophic injury, after hardships in life. This theme gives the book a bit more substance and brings the book closer to real life.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Winter in Full Bloom

Title:  Winter in Full Bloom
Author:  Anita Higman
Publication Information:  River North Fiction, Moody Publishers. 2013. 304 pages.

Book Source:  I received this book through the GoodReads First Reads program free of cost in exchange for an honest review. The book arrived as a paperback advance uncorrected proof.

Favorite Quote:  "Some kids seem like they belong to their parents, and then there are kids like me. A little offbeat."

Lily is alone. Her only child is off to college, leaving Lily's nest empty. Lily has been estranged from her own mother for over ten years. As empty nest syndrome effects Lily, she attempts a reconciliation with her mother.

Not surprisingly, she is unsuccessful. What is surprising and shocking is that her mother reveals that Lily is an identical twin. Lily has always thought she was an only child - no sibling, much less a twin. The other twin, Camille, is now living in Australia. That is all her mother will tell her, providing no information as to how or why Camille ended up in Australia.

Shocked and hurt but also amazed at the possibility of having a sister, Lily travels to Melbourne Australia with limited information. There, she meets Marcus, another US transplant who is escaping events in his own life. Together, they form a bond and search for Lily's sister. In this search, Lily learns a lot about herself, and perhaps finds herself.

Some of the "why's" of the book are difficult to believe, but if you are willing to suspend disbelief, the book is an easy and quick to read story that moves quickly and resolves sweetly. A feel good book.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

My Mother's Funeral

Title:  My Mother's Funeral
Author:  Adriana Paramo
Publication Information:  CavanKerry. 2013. 258 pages.

Book Source:  I received this book through the GoodReads First Reads program free of cost in exchange for an honest review. The book arrived as a paperback edition.

Favorite Quote:  "Mom, however, doesn't believe in monsters. She says that the only thing we need to be afraid of is people, especially men."

Adriana Paramo's was raised in Colombia but now lives in the United States. Her memoir centers around her trip back to Colombia for her mother's funeral, but really depicts a picture of her mother and their relationship, of the joy and the sorrow that are part of each.

Her mother, Carmen, grew up privileged, but married young and against her parent's wishes. Her husband drifted in and out of their family's life over the next decades, leaving Carmen to birth and raise six children - five daughters and one son. Adriana is the youngest of the children.

The memoir seamlessly moves between time periods - Carmen's early days of love and marriage, Adriana's childhood, and the loss of returning to Colombia for her mother's funeral. Through the tale, we get a picture of two strong women and of their sometimes complicated relationship.

Carmen learned to survive alone and hold life together for her children - whether that meant surviving the realization that her husband was not the gallant gentlemen she met, making bone soup for dinner day in and day out, washing and wearing the same set of clothes to always appear neat and clean, or running away  in the middle of the night from a landlord demanding rent.

Adriana knew that she was an unwanted birth - the youngest in a line when it was difficult enough to care for those who came before. Yet, she also knew that she was loved - memories of Mom making things special. Some instances are described through a child's innocent eyes; yet, they portray the adult reality of how difficult it must have been for her mother to maintain that innocence.

The book is part a tribute to the amazing woman that her mother was and part a testament to the love and complicated emotions that are part of a mother and daughter bond.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The First Phone Call from Heaven

Title:  The First Phone Call from Heaven
Author:  Mitch Albom
Publication Information:  HarperCollins Publishers Inc. 2013. 326 pages.

Book Source:  I read this book based on enjoying other works by the author.

Favorite Quote:  "As happens with all miracles, once life goes on, those who believe retell them with wonder. Those who do not, do not."

Coldwater Michigan is a small town. Sully Harding has just returned home, to rebuild his life after getting out of prison. He comes home to his parents and his young son.

Soon, strange things start happening in the town. People start receiving phone calls from loved ones who have passed away - phone calls from heaven. Is it real or is it a hoax? The whole question goes viral in this day and age of news and the Internet. Media descends upon the town. There are those who firmly believe, and those who firmly disbelieve. Each attempts to prove the other wrong. For Sully, it becomes a mystery to be solved.

I am not going to discuss the spiritual belief or disbelief. To me, that is an intensely personal choice, and each person will choose their own path.

Regardless of whether you believe or not in the possibility of miracles, this is a fun story to read. The book brings out the emotions of loss and of love in so many different relationships and so many different ways. It is also a testament to the power of the media, especially with the Internet sending events viral within a matter of minutes. At the center of it all, it is Sully's very personal story - of guilt, of love, and of rebuilding.

A tale well told regardless of whether or not you look for a deeper meaning.

Friday, December 6, 2013

A History of the World in 12 Maps

Title:  A History of the World in 12 Maps
Author:  Jerry Brotton
Publication Information:  Viking. 2013. 544 pages.

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

Favorite Quote:  "They certainly will not show the world 'as it really is', because that cannot be represented. There is simply no such thing as an accurate map of the world, and there never will be. The paradox is that we can never know the world without a map, nor definitively represent it with one."

A History of the World in 12 Maps starts with Ptolemy's Geography dated from the second century and ends with the current version of Google Earth. The other maps included in the 12 are:
  • 1100s - the maps of Muhammad al-Idrisi created for the king of Sicily
  • Circa 1300 - the Mappamundi created in Italy
  • 1402 - Kangnido world map from Japan, one of the oldest surviving maps of East Asia
  • 1507 - German cartographer Martin Waldseemuller's world map credited with the first usage of the word America
  • 1529 - Diogo Ribeiro 1529 credited to be first scientific world map
  • 1569 - Belgian Gerard Mercator's map that used a navigational grid
  • 1600 - Joan Baleu's creation of an atlas in Amsterdam
  • 1700s - Maps of France by the Cassini family, the first to use triangular measurements
  • Early 1900s - maps by Halford Mackinder, the first to address geopolitical maps
  • 1970s - Peters Projection named for German historian Arno Peters
As this list shows, the book is literally a walk forward through history. It covers a length and breadth of the Eurocentric world as it was known at the time. It also presents a history of cartography with its technical and usage innovations. In addition, it presents the history of the time, place, and people behind the map - clearly and repeatedly making the point that a map reflects the interpretation and vision of the mapmakers.

This book is dense. It contains a lot of information - on the maps themselves and on the geopolitical climate and events that led to the development of each map. As such, it becomes a history of cartography and a history of the world. At the same time, it is a very enjoyable and readable book. A great pick for anyone who enjoys history or geography.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

A Storied Life of A J Fikry

Title:  A Storied Life of A J Fikry
Author:  Gabrielle Zevin
Publication Information:  Algonquin Books. 2014. 272 pages.

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

Favorite Quote:  "The words you can't find, you borrow. We read to know we're not alone. We read because we are alone. We read and we are not alone. We are not alone. My life is in these books ... Read these and know my heart. We are not quite novels ... We are not quite short stories ... In the end, we are collected works."

A. J. Fikry is the owner of a small independent bookstore, Island Books, on a small island, Alice Island. His is the only bookstore on the island, catering to the small year round population in the winter and the burst of business that the summer visitors to the island bring. Surrounding him are the visitors to his bookstore, his wife's sister and her husband, the local police chief who becomes a friend, and the book rep of one of the publishers he deals with.

A.J. is a little lost. His beloved wife died suddenly. His bookstore is not doing well, and his prize possession - a rare book, of course - has been stolen. He is alone and isolated.

One day, an unexpected "package" arrives at his store, and changes his life forever. The story is about what follows that day in A.J's life. Peppered throughout at his notes on a variety of stories, some that I have read and some that are now going on my ever-lengthening to read list.

This book has been described as a "love letter to the world of books" which, of course, immediately appeals to me. It's a sweet story of ordinary people getting through life. That is its appeal. It's real. The fact that the setting is an independent bookstore certainly adds to that appeal. The book makes me feel like I am welcomed into the characters' world and become a part of it. I end the book still feeling warm and cozy.

At one point, A.J. writes, "People tell boring lies about politics, God and love. You know everything you need to  know about a person from the answer to the question:  What is your favorite book?" This is one of my recent favorites. Wonder what this tells you about me?

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Truth About You

Title:  The Truth About You
Author:  Susan Lewis
Publication Information:  Ballantine Books Trade Paperbacks, Ballatine Books, Random House Publishing Group, Random House LLC, Penguin Random House Company. 2013. 484 pages.

Book Source:  I received this book through the GoodReads First Reads program free of cost in exchange for an honest review. The book arrived as a paperback edition.

Favorite Quote:  "It's not really about words in the end, is it? It's about begin together, getting through the bad times and enjoying the good, sharing everything of each other and knowing we'll always be there for each other."

The Truth About You is a story of Lainey Hollingworth - wife, mother, daughter, friend. She is the caretaker of her family. Her husband Tom is a well know author. Her adoptive father Peter suffers from Alzheimer's and lives with Tom and Lainey. Managing their lives and the lives of her two children and her stepson is how Lainey spends her time.

A mystery exists in Lainey's past - a mystery about her biological father. Lainey knows she was born in Italy, but her mother fled when Lainey was a baby. During her life, her mother refused to reveal more. So, one summer, Lainey takes her family to Italy to discover her roots. She finds that and so much more that shakes the core of her world.

The cover of this books is deceptively pretty and wholesome - a lovely young girl walking through a field of flowers. The description of the book sounds like the makings of a good story. Unfortunately, the book itself goes in a completely different direction. In Lainey's Italian summer, some of the things that come up are - infidelity, illegitimate children, abandonment, unplanned pregnancies, rape, incest, pornography, and a "Fifty Shades of Grey" relationship. The book includes not one or two of these things in the story, but every single one.

In addition, Lainey's character ends up unlikable. It starts within the first few pages of the book as the reader learns that she had a relationship with Tom when he was still married to another woman and the father of a young child. "She should have walked away the minute she'd found out .... Instead she'd let him leave Emma and his five-year-old son in order to start a new life with her." That where it starts and proceeds from there in a direction that is not for me.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Translator

Title:  The Translator
Author:  Nina Schuyler
Publication Information:  First Pegasus Books. 2013. 306 pages.

Book Source:  I read this book based on seeing a description on GoodReads.

Favorite Quote:  "I don't think any human being fits neatly into one of your damn labels. It's a simple way of viewing the world. And you are the worse for it because what doesn't fit the label is blocked out."

Hanne Schubert has an affinity for languages. She works as a freelance translator. Her current project is the translation of the most important work of a well known Japanese author. She is completely immersed in the project, feeling as if she knows the characters as people and understands the author's intent. It is with this confidence that she translates the work.

Soon after completing the project, she is in an accident and suffers a head injury with the rare effect of loss of her native language. They only language she is able to speak and understand is Japanese. Attempting to deal with this, she travels to Japan for a conference. There, she is surprised that the author of the work she translated is angry and accusing her of sabotaging the English translation.

Trying to understand, she seeks out Moto, the actor on whom the main character in the book is based. She develops a relationship and comes to question and change some of the beliefs by which she lives her life.

Along the way, the reader learns that Haane is divorced with two children - a son and a daughter. In addition, the reader learns that she is estranged from her daughter. The history of that relationship is slowly revealed as Hanne learns more about herself in her time with Moto.

My biggest concern with this book is that I had to get more than half way through the book until I got what the story is truly about. Before that, it seems to be pieces going in different directions. Is it about the injury? Is it about Haane's work? Is it about her new relationship with Moto? Is it about her history and her children? The different aspects take a long time form a whole. It eventually comes together, but far too late in the book for me.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Truth in Advertising

Title:  Truth in Advertising
Author:  John Kenney
Publication Information:  Touchstone, Simon & Schuster. 2013. 308 pages.

Book Source:  I received this book through the GoodReads First Reads program free of cost in exchange for an honest review. The book arrived as a paperback edition.

Favorite Quote:  "I do think we get second chances, fifth chances, eighteenth chances. Every day we get a fresh change to live the way we want. We get a chance to do one amazing thing, once scary thing, one difficult thing, one beautiful thing. We get a chance to make a difference."

Finbar "Fin" Dolan is a middle aged man approaching forty, working at a Madison Avenue agency, and living alone. He is somewhat successful in his career. He has recently cancelled his wedding but holding on to the paid for honeymoon tickets, hoping somehow to use them for a vacation. He is somewhat getting involved with his co-worker. He is somewhat estranged from his family.

He is pulled out of his "somewhat" life when he has to cancel his Christmas vacation to finish a campaign for a client who makes diapers and when he learned his father is dying. The book proceeds along these two lines. One is an entertaining look inside the advertising world. The other is a sad story of dealing with dysfunctional family dynamics and coming to terms with family and the past in order to move forward.

The book is somewhat entertaining and somewhat sad. The dichotomy of the story for me continues throughout the book. I would have preferred it to be one or the other rather than trying to be both. I suppose the idea of truth - facing it, telling it, and believing it - is the central idea that ties both story lines together. For me, the two story lines are too distant for that to be completely successful.

Sunday, November 24, 2013


Title:  Wonder
Author:  R. J. Palacio
Publication Information:  Borzoi Book, Alfred A. Knopf, Random House Children's Books, Random House Children's Books, Random House, Inc. 2012. 315 pages.

Book Source:  I read this book based on all the wonderful reviews for the book and because sometimes I just want to know what is out there for my children to read. The book came as a hardcover edition from the local elementary school.

Favorite Quote:  "It's like people you see sometimes, and you can't imagine what it would be like to be that person .... Only I know that I'm that person to other people, maybe every single person in that auditorium. To me, though, I'm just me. An ordinary kid."

August "Auggie" Pullman is an little boy in the fifth grade. He loves video games and Star Wars just like so many other boys. However, he has been home schooled until this point because he was born with facial deformities and has required extensive medical intervention. His physical appearance has caused him to be excluded and shunned in so many situations that he spent part of his childhood wearing an astronaut helmet. His favorite holiday is Halloween because he can hide behind a mask and for a short while feel like any other child - a short while when appearance does not affect how people look at him and react to him.

In fifth grade, Auggie joins a mainstream school. This is the story of what happens in that fifth grade year. It is Auggie's story, but what pleasantly surprised me, it is so much more than that.  The first section of the book is Auggie's story. Then come sections from the perspective of those surrounding Auggie. His sister Via who loves her brother but has her owns struggles and challenges as she starts a new high school. Summer who becomes Auggie's first friend at school. Jack, another fifth grader who friends Auggie. Miranda who is Via's best friend and who has been a big part of Auggie's life. Justin who is Via's new friend. Throughout, the reader comes back to August and his story.

Each of the characters introduced are part of Auggie's life and are changed by their relationship with him. Each of them also faces their own struggles with growing up, feeling different, and feeling left out. As such, this story becomes so much broader because we all have experienced those feelings at times. While a reader (especially the target audience of children) may not directly relate to Auggie's situation, they may see themselves in one of the other characters.

I love discovering books that I enjoy as an adult and that I can share with my children. Even more, I love discovering books that can spark a conversation about life and life lessons with my children. A wonderful book!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena: A Novel

Title:  A Constellation of Vital Phenomena:  A Novel
Author:  Anthony Marra
Publication Information:  Hogarth. 2013. 400 pages.

Book Source:  I read this book because the cover and title looked intriguing.

Favorite Quote:  "There are maps to show you how to get to the place where you want to be but no maps that show you how to get to the time when you want to be."

A medical dictionary defines life as "a constellation of vital phenomena—organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation."

According to the author, this definition led to the title for this book. A six pointed definition of life leads to a six perspective story of the Chechan Wars. As such, it is not as much a story of war but of the choices people make to survive. As one character says, "War is unnatural ... It causes people to act unnaturally."

Haava is the young girl who is born into the war and who has seen her mother die, her father taken away, and her home destroyed because of the war. Akhmed is the neighbor and friend who attempts to save Haava. Sonja is the doctor who leaves her life in London to return to Chechnya to look for her sister and now runs a hospital. Natasha is Sonja's sister, who was left behind when Sonja left for London and who is now missing. Ramzan is a young man from Haava's village who has turned on his friends and neighbors and is now an informant. Khassan is Ramzan's father caught between the love for his son and his dislike of the path his son has chosen.

It took me a while to get into this book perhaps because the main story occurs over five days but the book weaves back and forth over a decade to provide the back story and perhaps because Chechnya is not a part of the world that I know. As such, the book took longer to engage me. However, once it did, I could not stop reading.

The weaving timeline becomes like lines connecting the dots of a constellation. Each revelation makes another part of the story clear, and gradually, an entire connected image emerges. The final picture is filled with sadness and horror of war but also ultimately with survival and love. A beautiful debut novel.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Survival Lessons

Title:  Survival Lessons
Author:  Alice Hoffman
Publication Information:  Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, Workman Publishing. 2013. 83 pages.

Book Source:  I received this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program free of cost in exchange for an honest review. The book arrived as a hardcover edition.

Favorite Quote:  "We all experience trauma and we all take a very personal path to healing on our own terms. But we're also alike in what we need most. Love really is the answer."

Survival Lessons, in the author's own words, is "what I would have most wanted to hear when I was newly diagnosed, when I lost the people I loved, when I was deeply disappointed in myself and the turns my life had taken." This slim volume is a list of lessons learned during the author's journey from being diagnosed with cancer to being a survivor.

Those lessons include:  Choose your heroes.  Choose to enjoy yourself. Choose your friends. Choose whose advice you take. ... Choose to be yourself. Choose to  share. Choose love. ...

For each lesson, Alice Hoffman describes what she means in a few pages. These lessons are not new. These lessons are not just for living through a life threatening illness but rather for the process of life itself. These lessons are not a set of directions but rather reminders on how to approach life.

For me, the most important lesson of all is that every single lesson begins with the word "choose." No matter what our circumstances, our thoughts and our approach is our choice.

The book has no table of contents. It can be read in its entirety in less than an hour. Each section can be read individually in a few minutes. The sepia colored paper and the monotone blue illustration lend to a feeling of calm throughout the book. Nothing really new, but sometimes new isn't necessary. A nice reminder to share with anyone going through a trying time.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Runaway Wife

Title:  The Runaway Wife
Author:  Rowan Coleman
Publication Information:  Gallery Books. 2012. 410 pages.

Book Source:  I received this book through the GoodReads First Reads program free of cost in exchange for an honest review. The book arrived as a paperback advance uncorrected proof.

Favorite Quote:  "You are a remarkable woman and you deserve all the happiness, contentment, and love in the world."

As the book begins, Rose Pritchard and her seven year old daughter Maddie arrive at a B&B in Millthwaite in England's Lake District. The reader gets glimpses that Rose is escaping from a bad marriage - the details emerge throughout the book.

Rose is also searching for someone from her past - someone she met once but whom she feels might be her future. What she finds is another, unexpected aspect of her past. All the pieces come together along with a myriad of local characters to fill out Rose's story.

This book takes on the difficult issue of domestic abuse and about having the courage to get out and rebuild her life. As such, Rose is portrayed as courageous and determined. Yet, that element of the story appears as a undertone to the entire book rather than the main focus.

What rings less true is the fact that she comes to Millthwaite looking for Frasier McLeod - a man she has met once but feels might be the love of her future. She bases her entire search on one meeting and one letter. She find him and more that she did not expect. She finds her estranged father, whom she hasn't seen since her childhood. What follows is a rebuilding of relationships, new relationships, and a new life free from fear and abuse.

This book is a quick read and an easy read. Not bad, not great.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Signature of All Things

Title:  The Signature of All Things
Author:  Elizabeth Gilbert
Publication Information:  Viking Books. 2013. 501 pages.

Book Source:  I received this book through the GoodReads First Reads program free of cost in exchange for an honest review. The book arrived as a paperback advance uncorrected proof.

Favorite Quote:  "She knew that the world was plainly divided into those who fought an unrelenting battle to live, and those who surrendered and died. This was a simply fact. ... This fact was the very mechanism of nature - the driving force behind all existence, behind all transmutation, behind all variation - and it was the explanation for the entire world."

The Signature of All Things starts with Henry Whittaker, a poor but enterprising young man who makes his living as a thief. He gets caught, but is allowed leeway because of the respect people have for his father. He is put to work, and through his work and some shady dealings becomes a very wealthy man. The bulk of the book is about his daughter Alma.

Alma is an only child living a rather secluded life. She develops an interest in botany, and her specialty becomes, of all things, mosses. Along the way, discoveries come into and change her life. The book has much description of her discovery of and secret use of a text on sexual pleasure and of her work with plants. Along the way, people come in and out of her life. Prudence is adopted in to the family and becomes a sister until a rift drives them apart. Ambrose is the artist who steals her heart but is unable to be a husband to her. Along the way, places come in and out of her life. White Acres with its large indoor botanical gardens is the Whittaker estate in England. Alma also travels the world, some for botanical research and some searching for the people in her life.

I am not even sure where to start with this book. Given the previous writing of Elizabeth Gilbert, I expected a lot more. This book is slow moving and difficult to read - boring with a set of unlikable characters. The most interesting component of the book is probably some of the descriptions of the natural world and plant life. However, if that's what I want to read, I would pick a nonfiction book about the topic. If this had not been a review copy, I would have abandoned the book. However, I did read it and am left wondering .... What was the point?

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Four Virtues: Presence, Heart, Wisdom, Creation

Title:  The Four Virtues: Presence, Heart, Wisdom, Creation
Author:  Tobin Hart
Publication Information:  Simon & Schuster. 2014. 384 pages.

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

Favorite Quote:  "This process isn't all sunshine but it does come with integrity and energy, tenderness and insight, hope and healing. Each of our paths is our own, but all journeys require certain powers of body and soul in order for us to make the most of the trip. These universal virtues help us to show up for our deepest life."

The four virtues of the book are presence, heart, wisdom, and creation. Presence is the "opening of consciousness to perceive beauty." Heart is "the opening for a life informed by compassion and passion." Wisdom is "the ability to see beyond what is given into new possibility." Creation is "how we bring ourselves authentically into the world both through our doing and being." In other words, this is book about a philosophy of life - not based on any dogma or rather on certain guiding principles.

The book is very consistently organized. The book is divided into four parts, each focused on one virtue. Each part is further divided into five chapters. The first presents the idea behind the virtue, culling stories and examples from literature, history, science, philosophy, various belief traditions, and individual accounts. The remaining four chapters of each part discuss aspects of developing that virtue. Each chapter has an explanation of the skill, followed by a quiz to assess where you stand right now, and then a list of practices to help develop that skill.

The ideas in this book are not new; however, they are well organized and well presented. The examples are varied and not based on any one ideology. The quizzes are quick and fun and can be insightful. The practices are discrete and concrete. Thus, the book brings structure and intent to what are broad based principles.

I can see keeping this book on my shelf and referring to it periodically when I need to center myself. I can also see giving it to certain friend who enjoy this type of spiritual analysis and reading. A positive new addition to self-help genre.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells

Title:  The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells
Author:  Andrew Sean Greer
Publication Information:  HarperCollins Publishers Inc. 2013. 304 pages.

Book Source:  I found this book while browsing the online catalog for my local library.

Favorite Quote:  "They say there are many worlds. All around our own, packed tight as the cells of your heart. Each with its own logic, its own physics, moons, and stars. ... And in those other worlds, the places you love are there, the people you love are there. Perhaps in one of them, all rights are wronged and life is as you wish it. So what if you found the door? And what if you had the key? Because everyone knows this:  That the impossible happens once to each of us."

The time is 1985. Greta Wells's twin brother has just died, and her long-time partner Nathan has just left her. She goes for therapy and agrees to undergo electroconvulsive (a.k.a. electroshock) therapy as a means of helping her overcome her sadness and emerge back into her life. The therapy sends her time-travelling.

We meet Greta in 1985, in 1918, and in 1941. Each time period presents an image of the life Greta lives, the choices she makes, and the joys and sorrows that come along with it. Along with Greta's live, the book describes major themes in the time period - war, disease, loss.

In each life, Greta reaches a point of receiving electroconvulsive therapy. With each procedure, the three Greta's of the three time periods switch places. The story follows the 1985 Greta, but tells of how each influences and changes the lives in the other time periods based on their wants and their regrets.

The description sounds a little confusing, but the story truly is not. For, as Greta thinks, "For is my story so unusual? To wake each morning as if things had gone differently - the dead come back, the lost returned, the beloved in our arms - is it any more magic that the ordinary madness of hope?"

To me, the book addresses the question "if you had your live to live over, what would you do differently?" and the idea that "wherever you go, there you are - your emotions and thoughts go with you no matter how far you travel." Without a spoiler, I will say that I enjoyed the fact that this book did not end up where I expected. The key to this book is to suspend disbelief and just go along for the enjoyable ride. 

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Breath, Eyes, Memory

Title:  Breath, Eyes, Memory
Author:  Edwidge Danticat
Publication Information:  Vintage Books, Random House Inc. 1994. 234 pages.

Book Source:  I read this book as this month's selection for my local book club.

Favorite Quote:  "Ou libere? Are you free, my daughter?"

Breath, Eyes, Memory is a book written in discrete sections. In the first section, we meet Sophie Caco, who is born and raised in Haiti. She has lived with her Aunt Atie since she was a baby when her mother left Haiti and went to New York. Sophie loves her aunt like a mother; yet, Aunt Atie is always careful to remind her of her "true" mother. One day, when Sophie is twelve, her mother summons her to New York. This section of the book ends as Sophie adjusts to her life with her mother and learns the devastating secret of her birth.

The second section begins when Sophie is eighteen - a six year gap. We learn of Sophie finding love and of a traumatizing cultural tradition of testing girls for their "purity". The section ends with Sophie's extreme decision and and action to escape.

The third section picks up a year or two later as Sophie returns to Haiti with her own infant daughter. Four generations of women - Sophie, her daughter, her mother, her aunt, and her grandmother - come together in anger, in love, in reconciliation, and in understanding.

The fourth and final section is upon the return of Sophie, her mother, and her daughter to the United States.

The book has the potential to be a very powerful story. The organization into discrete sections that skip time periods prevents its from completely achieving that potential. The movement from section to section pulls the reader away from the emotion, particularly as the first two sections end on such emotional points - the story of Sophie's birth and her actions to escape her past and tradition.

At those points, as a reader, I am not ready to move on. I want to know more and want the emotions and relationships to be further developed. It feels like the book drops a bombshell and then shows the impact only after passage of time. The immediate impact is left unexplored. A sad set of events. Compelling characters. But a story that stops short of being completely engrossing.

Friday, November 1, 2013

The Fault in Our Stars

Title:  The Fault in Our Stars
Author:  John Green
Publication Information:  Dutton Books, Penguin Group USA. 2012. 318 pages.

Book Source:  I read this book based on all the publicity for the book.

Favorite Quote:  "Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put together unless and until all living humans read the book. And then there are books .... which you can't tell people about, books so special and rare and yours that advertising your affection seems like a betrayal."

Hazel is a teenager with terminal cancer. At the Cancer Kids Support Group, she meets another cancer patient Augustus Waters. Beyond that, this is a story about friendship and love where you know that tomorrow may not be. What would you do for someone you love if you knew that this day may be your last day to show them your love? It's not a question most people think about because we don't like to think that our time may be limited.

This book comes at this question from so many different directions. Hazel who knows what her diagnosis and her prognosis is. Hazel's parents who are facing one of the most devastating things a parent could ever face. Augustus who, based on his diagnosis, may have a better prognosis. Isaac whose disease is slowly taking away relationships and pieces of his life. Peter Van Houten, an author Hazel find inspirational, but who fights his own demons. The plot includes a wish, a road trip, some life lessons but nothing really unexpected.

For me, to some extent, the book suffered from its own success. With all the rave reviews and publicity, I had really high expectations. It's not a bad book; for me, it's just not as wonderful as all the rave reviews. It is sad and emotional, but it not not unlike many other books that have been written about people battling terminal illness.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Pieces We Keep

Title:  The Pieces We Keep
Author:  Kristina McMorris
Publication Information:  Kensington Books. 2013. 464 pages.

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

Favorite Quote:  "She had learned there was more to our world than what any of us could see or fully comprehend. That's when it hit her. Maybe heaven was much like a lake at dawn, offering a different view depending on the person. Maybe heaven entailed more than a soul residing in a single place but instead having pieces of yourself spread among the hearts and memories of the people you touched."

The time is 2012. The place is Portland, Oregon. Audra is a single mother, still trying to recover from the devastating death of her husband Devon. She is attempting to rebuild a life for herself and her seven year old son Jack. Meredith and Robert are Devon's parents attempting to hold on to their son's memory and their grandson. Jack is suffering from fears and anxiety. The fear is manifesting itself in nightmares, disturbing artwork, and other psychological impact. Are these a ramification of Devon's death or is it something else?

The time is the late 1930s. The place is London, England. Vivian James is a young woman enjoying her life. Isaak is the young man she is seeing. Life seems to be good, but Europe rumbles with thoughts of war and Nazis. What will war mean for these young lovers?

What do these stories have in common? The book tells both stories in alternating sections, moving forward piece by piece. Is Jack still reeling from Devon's death? Will Vivian leave Europe as her diplomat father wants her to? Is Jack disturbed? Is Isaak and his love for Vivian genuine? Is Audra somehow responsible for her son's condition? Will Vivian create a new life for herself in the US?

Who to trust and what to believe? Gradually, the pieces start to draw closer and closer. The individual characters and stories are developed beautifully such that each is complete onto itself. Each section leaves the reader wanting to know what comes next. Yet, the book also keeps you guessing at the exact connection between the two.

For its length, the book is a very quick read. Each section is not long, and the structure adds to the drama of the story and the questions in the story. This is the first book I have read by Kristina McMorris. I will seek out more.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Some Nerve: Lessons Learned While Becoming Brave

Title:  Some Nerve:  Lessons Learned While Becoming Brave
Author:  Patty Chang Anker
Publication Information:  Riverhead. 2013. 368 pages.

Book Source:  I received this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program free of cost in exchange for an honest review. The book arrived as a paperback uncorrected proof.

Favorite Quote:  "The thing is, fear serves a function .... You can't just say 'Fear, go away!' and expect it to.  You need to ask 'Fear, why are you here? What are you trying to protect me from? Is it something I need protection for? Or is it a response to a situation that resolved years ago or that maybe even happened to somebody else?' If so, you can recognize the fear for what it is and say that this isn't necessary anymore."

Patty Chang Anker is the creator of the blog Facing Forty Upside Down and the mother of two daughters. Close to her fortieth birthday, she undertook a mission to try things she never had before and to overcome some of her fears in order to be a better role model for her daughters. Along her journey, she met and learned from other people facing similar fears. So, she set out to learn more and see if her input could help others conquer their own fears.

This book is a compilation of her research and her experiences. She includes numerous stories from friends and people she has met along the way. She also includes information gathered from therapists and other experts who can shed light on this journey.

Overall, the stories are interesting, and most people can find things to relate to - whether in the fact that we overcome a fear or in the fact that we feel the fear. Two things I feel are missing for the book. First, the fears that the book addresses are pragmatic ones - fear of water, public speaking, heights, and even death. An entire world of fears exist that are just as common but less concrete - fear of loss, abandonment, etc - and not surmountable by doing what scares you. Overcoming those fears is also a key element of becoming brave. I wish that book addressed at least some aspect of these more nebulous fears.

Second, the book has a very pragmatic tone. The book presents evidence and data from many different sources and tells many different stories. The number of stories decreases the level of depth in any one story. I would have preferred fewer, but in depth stories that delve deeper into the process. Overcoming any fear is very much an emotional journey, and I wish the book conveyed that emotion in a stronger way.

Friday, October 25, 2013

I Am Malala

Title:  I Am Malala
Author:  Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb
Publication Information:  Little, Brown and Company; Hachette Book Group. 2013. 327 pages.

Book Source:  I read this book because I want to read and learn from Malala's story.

Favorite Quote:  "On the shelves of our living room are awards from around the world - America, India, France, Spain, Italy, and Austria, and many other places. I've even been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, the youngest person ever. When I received prizes for my work at school I was happy, as I had worked hard for them but these prizes are different. I am grateful for them, but they only remind me how much work still needs to be done1 to achieve the goal of education for every boy and girl. I don't want to be thought of as the 'girl who was shot by the Taliban' but the 'girl who fought for education.'"

It is difficult to be tuned into the news recently and not have heard the story of Malala Yousafzai, a young woman in the northern regions of Pakistan who spoke out for education, was shot by the Taliban, and has become a world celebrity. She is now the youngest person in the world to ever be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

This book is her story, and through her story, a history of the northern part of Pakistan and somewhat a history of the fight for education. The culmination of the book, of course, is the event that brought Malala worldwide attention. The bulk of the book builds the background of the situation that leads to her shooting.

I was actually not sure I wanted to read the book. It sat on my night stand for a week before I read it. Not because I do not want to share in her story, but rather because I was not sure how the story would be told. Would it be a medium for publicity? Would it be the voice of the adult co-author instead of this young woman? Would a reader be able to read the book as a book and not get bogged down in political statements? Would the book be her story or a way of depicting history and politics? Would the book be a one-sided view of Pakistan and its people? An article that appeared in The Washington Post captures my concern:  "It can sometimes feel as if the entire West were trying to co-opt Malala, as if to tell ourselves: "Look, we're with the good guys, we're on the right side. The problem is over there." Sometimes the heroes we appoint to solve our problems can say as much about us as about them. Malala's answer is courage. Our answer is celebrity." (Max Fisher. "The Nobel committee did Malala a favor in passing her over for the peace prize." The Washington Post, October 11, 2013)

Surprisingly, the book does a good job of balancing the personal story of Malala and her family and the history and unsettled political climate of the Swat Valley. To me, the book projects the voices of both authors - a young woman coming through life altering changes and an experienced journalist investigating a part of the world. This history covered goes beyond Malala's young life, presenting background through the stories of her father and the generations before. Her voice comes through as that of a young woman - stories of arguing with siblings, spending time with friends, and longing for a home that remains out of reach. "Over the last year I've seen many other places, but my valley remains to me the most beautiful place in the world. I don't know when I will see it again, but I know that I will."

The issue of eduction is a global issue. Malala's story is only one of so many more. I hope this book and the fact that her story caught the world's attention leads to real global changes and efforts to help all the children. I hope that Malala is always known as the "girl who fought for education."

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Explanation for Everything

Title:  The Explanation for Everything
Author:  Lauren Grodstein
Publication Information:  Algonquin Books, Workman Publishing. 2013. 338 pages.

Book Source:  I received this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program free of cost in exchange for an honest review. The book came as a paperback advance reading copy.

Favorite Quote:  "As long as we're on this earth we should do right by other people. Especially those who have been good to us."

Andy Waite is a widowed father raising his two daughters. He is still attempting to reconcile with the loss of his wife six years ago. He is a college professor who has built his life and his career around the theory of evolution.

Enter into the picture Melissa. Melissa is a student who wishes to study intelligent design, a idea that suggests that certain aspects of our world cannot be explained by evolution and natural selection but rather by the hand of a designer. Melissa convinces Andy to direct her study even though their views conflict.

I feel that the intent of the book is to look at the philosophical discussion of evolution versus creation especially at times of difficulty or tragedy. To me, however, it's a sad book about a man attempting to reconcile the sadness in his life. He loses his wife in a tragic way; yet, the moral dilemma of the existence of something beyond death comes six years later? He builds his career and work around one central idea, but calls it all into question based on the work of one student? He is a father of two attempting to build a life for his daughters, but he puts it at risk for a young woman?

The motivations and actions do not ring true. Andy Waite comes across as a man lost in his own life, somewhat sad and directionless. As such, the book's intent to raise a discussion about philosophical issues seems to lose direction in the individual characters.