Friday, March 29, 2013

The Burgess Boys

Title:  The Burgess Boys
Author:  Elizabeth Strout
Publication Information:  Random House Publishing Group, Random House Inc. 2013. 320 pages.

Book Source:  I received this book through the GoodReads First Reads program free of cost in exchange for an honest review. I had requested the book because I enjoyed Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. The book arrived as a paperback Advance Reader's Edition.

Favorite Quote:  "Living in a world where constantly one turned and touched incomprehension - they did not comprehend, he did not comprehend - gave the air the lift of uncertainty and this seemed to wear away something in him, always he felt unsure of what he wanted, what he thought, even what he felt."

The Burgess Boys are Jim and Bob - both scarred by the accidental death of their father when they were young. They choose very different paths in life but remain connected as only siblings can. A call from their sister Susan brings them back to their hometown in an attempt to help their nephew Zach, who is in trouble with the law.

Zach makes a bad decision and does something that can be viewed as a boy's stupidity or as a hate crime depending on perspective. He is prosecuted for the crime. Both Jim and Bob are attorneys although both have chosen very different careers.  Susan, who is Bob's twin, calls on her two brothers to help. Through the context of this event, the book tells the story of these three siblings.

This book tries to take on too much and too many big issues - the scars of childhood, the complicated relationships between siblings, marriage and divorce, tensions in a small community, race and ethnic issues, political issues, and more. Unfortunately, in doing all of that, it does justice to none of them.

The book starts off with great potential. Unfortunately, after a while, it feels like it is jumping from thread to thread to thread. No one aspect of the story line develops fully, and as a reader, leaves me unsatisfied.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Lessons in French

Title:  Lessons in French
Author:  Hilary Reyl
Publication Information:  Simon & Schuster. 2013. 339 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 an advance uncorrected proof.

Favorite Quote:  "So often I was defined by what I could not have."

Lessons in French is a coming of age story. Kate is a young college graduate, who comes to Paris based on a job offer for photographer Lydia Schell. Once in Paris, she is caught up in the life of Lydia Schell and her family - husband, children, and those who surround them in their world. Kate does a lot of growing up and lessons some life lessons in her time in Paris.

Kate is a young woman seeking her own place in the world apart from the expectations of others. She steps into a world that she does not always understand and that she is not prepared for. Outlooks and values and expectations clash. Love affairs start and end. Friendship that appear real are not. The line between employer and employee is first blurred and then sharply defined.

This book reminded me of The Nanny Diaries by Emma McLaughlin and The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger. Readers who enjoyed those books will like enjoy this one. A story about growing up and defining yourself in a beautiful setting like Paris - the setting perhaps my favorite part of the book.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Something About Sophie

Title:  Something About Sophie
Author:  Mary Kay McComas
Publication Information:  HarperCollins Publishers. 2013. 296 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 an uncorrected proof.

Favorite Quote:  "I got plenty of good memories and just the few that are sad. I pick and choose the ones I conjure up."

Something About Sophie is part mystery and part self discovery. Sophie Shepard is a young woman, who comes to a small Virginia town because she receives a letter from Arthur Cubeck. She knows she is adopted and thinks that the information Arthur has might tell her about her birth mother. She is happy in her life and with her adoptive family and does not have a need to find her birth mother, but she comes.

Unfortunately, upon her arrival, she discovers that Arthur has died, and no one seems to know what information he had to share. Thus begins the pseudo-mystery of discovering what relationship Sophie Shepard has to the town of Clearfield.

Unfortunately, the mystery ends up not much of a mystery. So, the books loses some interest. Additionally, the characters are not particularly vibrant and don't elicit an emotional connection. The book loses some more interest. The story follows a stereotypical path of some mystery, some romance, and some small town intrigue. The book loses even more interest.

Fortunately, it is a quick read, but for me, by the end, nothing much interesting is left in the book.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Storyteller

Title:  The Storyteller
Author:  Jodi Picoult
Publication Information:  Atria Books, Simon & Schuster. 2013.  460 pages.

Book Source:  I read this book because I have enjoyed many of the the Jodi Picoult's books.

Favorite Quote:  "It doesn't matter what it is that leaves a hole inside you. It just matters that it's there."

The Storyteller is a story of the Holocaust told from many different perspectives. Minka is the survivor. Sage is her granddaughter who feels removed from the history until she learns the reality of how it affected those she loves. Leo is one who studies the history and searches to bring the perpetrators to justice. Josef is.....Well, who Josef is becomes the crux of this story.

I have read several Jodi Picoult books. Unequivocally, the books all tackle difficult issues, and all of them have made me think and have elicited a strong emotional response. This book confronts the issue of forgiveness - our ability to forgive others and to forgive ourselves and what forgiveness does for the giver and the receiver. It tackles it on an enormous scale - the horror of the Holocaust, but at the same time, on a very personal level - forgiveness at an individual level.

The story is an emotional and powerful one from each perspective. Interestingly, the least developed is the story of Sage, who begins as the main character. She is dealing with guilt and forgiveness in her own life; yet that by the end seems tangential and extraneous to the main story. Leo's story is the pragmatic one of bringing people to justice, of ensuring that legal boundaries are met. Minka's story along with Josef's is, by its very nature, the most intense and the most emotional. Mingled with Minka's story is a tale she writes - one that to some extent mirrors the world around her but at the same time is able to take her away from the horrors she faces.

I have to say that I did guess the ending - the twist that so often comes in Jodi Picoult stories. In this case, seeing it coming added to powerful message of forgiveness that the book is all about.

On her website, Jodi Picoult states, "If we have a moral responsibility to the past, it's to make sure that history like this doesn't repeat. ... That's why I wrote this book. Because stories matter, and there are six million people who did not have the opportunity to tell theirs." A powerful book to read and to be left thinking about for a long while.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

How to Win College Scholarships

Title:  How to Win Scholarships:  A Guide for Parents in 10 Easy Steps
Author:  Monica L. Matthews
Publication Information:  ebook edition

Book Source:  I read this book because college costs are looming large on the horizon for us, and every resource can help. The guide came as a ebook edition from the author.

Favorite Quote:  "It [Winning scholarships] will not be easy, but I think the information that I've shared here will make it easier on both of you."

How to Win Scholarships lives up to its name. It is a how-to guide written by a mother, who was faced with the dilemma a few years ago of how to pay for her oldest son's college education, especially given that they have two younger children who will be college age soon.

This guide is the culmination of her research and experience. Her results speak for themselves. Her son received over $100,000 in scholarship money.

The guide is short - under 25 pages. The information in it is straight forward - tips that make you go "That makes sense." The tips are also specific, ranging from how to organize the search, how to build a resume, and how to find opportunities. In addition, the writing perspective is that of a parent - someone with a vested interest in the success of the process. Someone with the same perspective as a reader.

Accompanying the guide, the author has an active social media presence. Ongoing resources include lists of scholarship opportunities and articles on the college process.

A useful resource if you are looking at the college process.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Until The End of Time

Title:  Until The End of Time
Author:  Danielle Steel
Publication Information:  Delacorte Press, Random House Publishing Group, Random House Inc. 2013. 323 pages.

Book Source:  I read this book because I read Danielle Steel books.

Favorite Quote:  "It was one of those defining moments in life when you throw everything you believe out the window and caution to the winds."

Until The End of Time is a love story - one or two depending on your perspective. The premise is that true love transcends time and recognizes each other in different life spans. This book tells the story of Bill and Jenny and the story of Robert and Lillibet. Two stories or one - you decide.

I had a number of issues with this book. One, the book did not effectively sell its premise of love continuing beyond death. The two stories seemed completely separate. The only connection was the author saying here are two stories, and here is the connection. The connection had no substance.

Second, Bill and Jenny's story ends up in a small town in rural Wyoming. Unfortunately, the overriding impression left of the community is of alcoholism, abuse, and people who needed what Jenny's New York glamour brings. Robert and Lillibet's story is set among the Amish. The impression left from this one is one of limited rights of women in the Amish community. Both stories seemed to bring out the negative stereotypes with both small town living and an Amish life. As such, it did a disservice to both communities.

Third, because the book attempted to tell stories, it seemed to do neither one justice. Both felt rushed, and both came to an abrupt ending. Not satisfying for someone looking to get lost in a romance.

I will probably keep reading Danielle Steel because sometimes you just need the idealism and happy endings her books bring, but this was not one I enjoyed.

Monday, March 11, 2013

A Week in Winter

Title:  A Week in Winter
Author:  Maeve Binchy
Publication Information:  Alfred A. Knopf, Random House Inc. 2012. 326 pages.
Typeset Font:  Adobe Garamond

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

Favorite Quote:  "It's not what I though my life would be either, but somewhere along the line we have to pick things up and run with them."

A Week in Winter is the latest book by Maeve Binchy. Unfortunately, it was her last book. Maeve Binchy passed away in July 2012. Over the course of her career, her work was translated into 30 different languages and sold over 40 million copies.

This book has all the elements of what I expect from her books - a beautiful setting in Ireland, a motley cast of characters each with their own story, and a place or a situation that brings these diverse characters together in a cohesive whole.

Chicky Starr is a girl from the small town of Stonebridge in western Ireland. Life takes her on travels far away away, but eventually she returns to buy an old mansion and convert it into a hotel. Miss Queenie is the owner of the mansion. Rigger is a friend's son who ends up their to get away from some troubles. Orla is her niece who returns from London to help. The guests they host are as diverse ranging from a movie start to a musician.

They all come together for "a week in winter" at the hotel. Their stories intertwine and overlap. A classic Maeve Binchy book. Fun to read while curled up on the couch with a cup of tea.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

The House Girl

Title:  The House Girl
Author:  Tara Conklin
Publication Information:  HarperCollins Books. 2013. 372 pages.

Book Source:  I read this book based on its description.

Favorite Quote:  "Freedom was a curious thing. Were the chickens free, running their fool heads off in the yard? The horse, that still must fit the bit between its teeth? Was Missus free? But what else to dream for? .....  Just to sit for a moment, herself, no one claiming her time or her thoughts or the product of her mind and hands. What other word to call it that if not freedom?"

The House Girl is two parallel stories - two women in two different time periods and two different situations. Yet, their stories belong together in this book. It is 2004, and Lina Sparrow is a young lawyer trying to establish herself in her firm and get on the partner track. She is assigned to a class-action lawsuit that looks to get reparations for families and descendants of American slaves. Her job is to find a lead plaintiff to represent the "class" for the lawsuit - an individual who can be the face of the lawsuit.

In her research, she discovers a controversy in the art world - a claim that the work of renowned Southern artist Lu Anne Bell is actually the work of her house girl - a young slave by the name of Josephine. Lina sets out to discover Josephine's story and hopefully a descendant who could be part of the lawsuit.

The book tells Lina's story and Josephine's story. Lina's story is that of her career, this lawsuit, and of her relationship with her parents - her mother who died when she was a child and her father who himself is an artist and who has never spoken of her mother with Lina. At least not until now. It is a story of the impact of this on Lina and her journey of self-discovery.

Josephine's story is the story of the life of a slave on a plantation in Virginia in 1852. It is the story of the horrors and losses that life entailed. It is the story of a quest for freedom, and all those who either helped or hindered that quest.

A number of convenient - some may say too convenient - coincidences draw the two stories together. However, that did not hinder my enjoyment of the book. The stories are beautifully told, and I found myself feeling for both Lina and Josephine and drawn into both their lives.

A beautiful debut novel. I look forward to reading more from Tara Conklin.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Title:  Behind the Beautiful Forevers
Author:  Katherine Boo
Publication Information:  Random House Inc. 2012. 288 pages.

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

Favorite Quote:  "Water and ice were made of the same thing. He thought most people were made of the same thing, too. ... If he had to sort all humanity by its material essence, he through he would probably end up with a single gigantic pile. But here was the interesting thing. Ice was distinct from - an in his view, better than - what it was made of. ... He wanted to be recognized as better than the dirty water in which he lived. He wanted a verdict of ice."

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a snapshot - the history of a place told through the story of one community's fight to survive. The author Katherine Boo is a Pulitzer prize winning journalist. Her connection to India is a very personal one. India represents the land and heritage of her husband.

This book presents a very personal story about a Mumbai slum - Annawadi. Through the lives of its residents, the book tells the story of the place. It deals with the extreme poverty, the corruption, the racial and religious tensions, and the impact of world events on this community. Amidst this abject living exist the bonds of family, friendship, and love.

It is the story of the mother seeking to hold her family together. It is the story of the young man who has to learn to shoulder responsibility way too early. It is the story of the young woman who sees education as her way out. It is the story of some who see death as their only way out. It is the story of the boy who every day makes the choice between a life of crime and something different. It is the story of those who use corruption to survive and those who are caught in its effects.

It is a story of the physical conditions of the place. The open sewage. The garbage. The temporary shelters. The stench. And the disease. Some of the graphic descriptions of the physical afflictions are the jarring note for me in this book. Yes, the conditions are as miserable as the book portrays. I have seen them - not in Annawadi but in similar places. However, the graphic descriptions particularly of disease repeat so often in the book that the repetition becomes an unneeded element.

What stands out most for me is that people everywhere are the same - whether in the mud and filth of a slum or in a suburban home or in a mansion; whether in India or the US or anywhere in the world. Families who agree and disagree. Parents wanting a better life for their children than what they have. Friendships that flourish in the unlikeliest of pairs. Love. Human nature that transcends our circumstances. We as people are the same no matter where we are. We are blessed if our circumstances are worlds away from those described in the book. 

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Kashmir Shawl

Title:  The Kashmir Shawl
Author:  Rosie Thomas
Publication Information:  Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc. 2011. 467 pages.

Book Source:  I read this book base on the title. I am fortunate enough to own a Kashmir shawl - not the same variety as the one in the book but beautiful nevertheless. I was intrigued enough to want to read more.

Favorite Quote:  "The world wasn't either black or white as far as love went. There were infinite permutations of colour, and a hundred thousand grades of feeling, between loving and not loving. To deny as much, she began to think, was to deny not only the obvious truth but your own humanity."

The Kashmir Shawl is a book that moves between two intertwined stories - the story of Nerys, a missionary's wife in India in the 1940s and the story of Mair, her granddaughter. It is truly a story of relationships - marriages, friendships, and the relationships that are in between.

Upon her father's death, Mair finds a Kashmir shawl and a lock of hair in her mother's things. She knows they belonged to her grandmother. Her grandfather was a missionary in India during the 1940s, and his wife Nerys with him.

Feeling at a crossroads in her life, Mair embarks on a quest to try and find the history of this shawl. It is an exquisite piece of hand woven fabrics that took months to make - something special bought to commemorate a special occasion perhaps. That is what Mair knows, and with that she travels to India.

The book then weaves back and forth through Mair's journey and through Nerys' story. Yet, somehow, the story envelops you in its entirety. The movement between the two time periods and the characters does not jar and pull the reader from one to other. It seems to blend into one whole.

In addition, Nerys's story does not take the path I expected, and the history of the shawl does not end up being what I anticipated. That turn in a different direction adds depth to the story, and keeps it from being another story about old forgotten loves.

I don't know that I can say exactly why I enjoyed this book so much, but I know at the end, I sighed and was sad that it was over.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Help Thanks Wow

Title:  Help Thanks Wow
Author:  Anne Lamott
Publication Information:  Riverhead Books, Penguin Group. 2012. 102 pages.

Book Source:  I saw this book while browsing at Costco. I loved the simplicity of the idea.

Favorite Quote:  "I do not know much about God and prayer, but I have come to believe, over the past twenty-five years, that there's something to be said for keeping prayer simple. Help. Thanks. Wow."

Help. Thanks. Wow. Three simple words. Three powerful prayers. Anne Lamott's fundamental idea is that no matter how you believe in a God, a Higher Power and no matter what your creed, we all respond at times in our lives with a call for help, a recognition of what we receive, and an acknowledgement of wonder. It really is that simple. We may complicate it with history and circumstances, but the idea distills back down to those three words.

I am a little torn on how to rate the book for this reason - beautiful idea that did not need a book to elaborate on it. I love the idea of this book - the simplicity of it. I just don't know that it warranted an entire book - even  a short one as this one is. The beauty of the idea is that it's simple and does not require much explanation. I found the book wandering through anecdotes and seeming to ramble on.

So, take the idea, but forget the book.