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.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Light in the Ruins

Title:  The Light in the Ruins
Author:  Chris Bohjalian
Publication Information:  DoubleDay. 2013. 320 pages.

Book Source:  I read this book because I have read other books by the author and enjoyed some of them (The Night Strangers and The Sandcastle Girls).

Favorite Quote:  "We make compromises. We look the other way. Then, when it's over, we can't look at ourselves in the mirror."

The Light in the Ruins is a story of World War II as it comes to Italy and a story of a war vendetta carried out about ten year later. The story moves back and forth between the two time periods, slowly revealing bits and pieces about the characters and the events that transpired.

The story centers around the Rosati family. During the war, the Rosatis live on their estate, the Villa Chimera near Florence. Two brothers, Vittore and Marco, serve in the war. Eighteen year old Cristina, along with her parents and Marco's wife and children, live at Villa Chimera. The hope is that the war will end before it truly reaches them. Unfortunately, that is not to be. Italy becomes a battleground, as the Allies reach near, Germany makes a stand, and the Italian partisans fight in the nearby hills. The Rosatis are caught up in the fighting, becoming host to both the Nazis and the partisans.

Ten years later, Francesca, Marco's wife is found brutally murdered in Florence. The police investigate. One of the investigators, Serafina Bettina, was one of the partisans during the war and discovers her own link to the Rosatis.

The book continues with the story from both time periods. Interspersed throughout the thoughts or words of the killer, possibly to provide hints as to the killer's identity and motive. The suspense builds in both time periods throughout the book as the killings and the investigation continue, and as the war comes closer and touches Villa Chimera. Chris Bohjalian's writing brings both time periods and the characters to life.

Most of Chris Bohjalian's books have an unexpected ending, one that makes you look back through the book to see if you could have seen it coming. With this book, the unfortunate thing is that you could not have seen it coming. The ending and the resolution was almost tangential to the main story built throughout the book. As a reader, that takes some of the fun out of it. It's one thing to be surprised. It's quite another to feel that it was almost unrelated. Still, the writing is enjoyable.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Cloud Atlas

Title:  Cloud Atlas
Author:  David Mitchell
Publication Information:  Random House Trade Paperbacks, The Random House Publishing Group, Random House Inc. 2004. 500 pages.

Book Source:  This book is required summer reading for the Advanced Placement English class at our high school. I read it because I wanted to see what our school will be teaching.

Favorite Quote:  "Every nowhere is somewhere."

I have to admit. I finished reading this book a while ago. I have taken this time to dwell on it, reread passages, think about it some more, and really consider how I describe it. Reading this book, I feel, will be an intensely personal experience. This book will not work for everyone. For me, it did.

From its description, the book is a set of six loosely related stories. Each is set in a different time and place. Each is written in an entirely different style. The first is the journal of a traveler. The second is letters from a young musician. The third is the story of a young reporter and big business. The fourth is the adventure of a publisher institutionalized because of illness. The fifth is the tale of a futuristic world of clones and slavery. The sixth comes full circle to life on a primitive post-apocalyptic island.

The stories are not told in their entirety, instead in halves. They build from the first to the sixth and then weave their way back. The first set of sections stop rather abruptly and at a climatic moment. Only the story of the post-apocalyptic world is told in one go. As such, it forms the crux of the novel.

Based on the description, I was not sure I was going to enjoy the book. As I read the first section, I wasn't sure I would like it. Yet, I kept reading. The writing styles of certain sections appealed to me more so than others. Slowly, though, themes start to emerge in the book - statements of ideology and philosophy - and it coalesces into a whole. The book is one about human nature, power, control, and the past being redefined to suit the needs of the future. These themes repeat throughout the book:

From the traveler's journal:  "Scholars discern motions in history & formulate these motions into rules that govern the rises & falls of civilizations. My belief runs contrary, however. To wit: history admits no rules, only outcomes. What precipitates outcomes? Vicious acts and virtuous act. What precipitates acts? Belief. Belief is both prize & battlefield, within the mind & in the mind's mirror, the world."

From the musician's letters:  "Wars do not combust without warning. They begin as little fires over the horizon. Wars approach ... Another war is always coming, Robert. They are never properly extinguished. What sparks wars? The will to power, the backbone of human nature. The threat of violence, the fear of violence, or actual violence is the instrument of this dreadful will ... The nation-state is merely human nature inflated to monstrous proportions. QED, nations are entities whose laws are written by violence."

From the reporter's story:  "Yet how is it some men attain mastery over others while the vast majority live and die as minions, as livestock? The answer is a holy trinity. First:  God-given gifts of charisma. Second:  the discipline to nurture these gifts to maturity, for though humanity's topsoil is fertile with talent, only one seed in ten thousand will every flower - for want of discipline ... Third:  the will to power. This is the enigma at the core of the various destinies of men. What drives some to accrue power where the majority of the compatriots lose, mishandle, or eschew power? Is it addiction? Wealth? Survival? Natural selection? I propose these are all pretexts and results, not the root cause. The only answer can be 'There is no "Why." This is our nature.' 'Who' and 'What' run deeper than 'Why.'"

From the publisher's tale:  "Mother used to say escape is never further than the nearest book. Well, Mumsy, no, not really .... Books don't offer real escape, but they can stop a mind scratching itself raw."
[Okay, I know this has nothing to do with the themes, but I love comments in books about books.]

From the future world:  "In a cycle as old as tribalism, ignorance of the Other engenders fear; fear engenders hatred; hatred engenders violence; violence engenders further violence until only "rights," the only law, are whatever is willed by the most powerful."

From the post-apocalyptic world:  "Human hunger birthed the Civ'lize, but human hunger killed it too."

What I found amazing was how completely David Mitchell is able to change his writing style from section to section. Each section is like reading a completely different book - the voice, the language, the writing style, the descriptions - pretty much everything about the story. I feel that David Mitchell describes his own work within the book. "Spent the fortnight gone in the music room, reworking my year's fragments into a "sextet for overlapping soloists":  piano, clarinet, 'cello, flute, oboe, and violin, each in its own language of key, scale, and color. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor:  in the second: each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan't know until it's too late, and by then it'll be too late."

I vote revolutionary. I did not expect to like this book, but I did. I expected to toil through it, and through some sections, I did. The themes and the ideas of this book will stay with me for a long time, and I can see myself periodically rereading.

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Execution of Noa P. Singleton

Title:  The Execution of Noa P. Singleton
Author:  Elizabeth L. Silver
Publication Information:  Crown Publishers, Crown Publishing Group, Random House Inc. 2013. 320 pages.

Book Source:  I read this book because it sounded like it has an interesting premise.

Favorite Quote:  "When you try to find the answer or explanation for a law, a scientific discovery, a tumor, and you can't identify its reasons, then you just cut it out. Surgically remove anything potentially cantankerous. Cauterize society around it so that we'll never know the real answer."

Noa P. Singleton is a death row inmate, convicted of capital murder. As the reader meets her, she has been on death row for many years and is now a short time away from her  execution date. Enter into the picture - two attorneys - one who is young and idealistic and one who happens to be the mother of Noa's victim. Through Noa's recollections, the book brings the reader through her life, particularly the months prior to the crime.

The characters in this are not likable. Noa appears to have no interest in her own life or trying to save it. Marlene is a grieving mother, but as the book slowly reveals, her motives go beyond that grief. Noa's family includes her mother who has not reached out to her since her arrest and conviction and her father who was absent for most of her life.

The premise of the book is a strong one, dealing with issues like capitol punishment and the impact childhood has on adult life. Unfortunately, the execution of that premise is lacking for two primary reasons.

First, the author's writing style, particularly some of the descriptions, distract from the story itself. For example, papers and evidence "eviscerate, peeling into orange curls and blackened petals in the crematorium of dead documents". A beating heart is described as "the beat of those four musicians ... making their own metronome of quarter notes, eighth notes, half notes". Rather than adding to the story, these descriptions seem out of place.

Second, the first half of the book builds a storyline with Noa, her relationship with her father, and the events surrounding her crime, and her lack of interest in saving her own life. Unfortunately, the resolution and the "reveal" of Noa's motivations for her actions goes in a completely different direction. Without a spoiler, let me just say it was a disappointment.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Bellman & Black

Title:  Bellman & Black
Author:  Diane Setterfield
Publication Information:  Simon & Schuster. 2013. 336 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 things a man does not think about can incubate in him without benefit of conscious attention."

The short description of this book says that it is the story of William
Bellman and how one action in his childhood has ramifications throughout his life. The subtitle of the book is "A Ghost Story." The book does not live up to that description and ends up in an entirely different place.

As a young man, William kills a rook with a slingshot. The reference to rooks appears throughout the book as a symbol in or commentary on the direction of William's life. As William grows up, his business sense leads to great wealth and great power. His personal life begins on a positive note. He is young, smart, and handsome. Life brings him love and success.

Tragedy falls and brings with it a bargain between William and a man named Black. That bargain leads to a new business and even greater professional success. Yet, what of his personal life? As William's success grows, what is the parallel impact on his person and his personal life?

To me, this entire book just simmers and never truly finds its grip. The anticipation of a big moment exists throughout the book; yet, the moment never comes. The book is called a ghost story, but it is not quite that. The book is based on the ramifications of a cruel childhood action, but the impact seems exaggerated. The book is about a mysterious bargain in a desperate moment, but that does not end up where you expect. The book in some descriptions is classified as horror, but it is not that other than the macabre business that William Bellman ends up in. The book in some descriptions is classified as historical fiction, but it not that either other than the descriptions that evoke a time and place. In other words, the book could have been a lot of things, but it never quite gets there.

The descriptions even the extensive ones about the Bellman business are enjoyable to read, and the dark somber atmosphere is created well and held through the bulk of the book. Thus, what saves the book is Diane Setterfield's writing.

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Title:  The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Author:  Neil Gaiman
Publication Information:  HarperCollins Publishers Inc. 2013. 182 pages.

Book Source:  I read this book because I have seen so much publicity about this author's work but never read anything by him.

Favorite Quote:  "Different people remember things differently, and you'll not get any two people to remember anything the same, whether they were there or not.  You stand two of you lot next to each other, and you could be continents away for all it means anything."

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is pure fantasy. The author intended for it be a short story, but the story evolved into a novel. The book pulls the reader into its world and does not let go.

A man returns to the place of his childhood for a funeral and takes a trip down memory lane. His home is no longer there, but he visits a neighbor's home - the family of a childhood friend. From there, the story is a reflection back into his childhood.

He grew up on a farm with his parents and sister. A lonely quiet seven year old boy. His family struggles with money. He becomes friendly with a young girl, Lettie, who lives with her grandmother and mother at the end of the lane.

From there, the story draws the reader into a world of creatures from another world, of good and evil, of friendship and sacrifice. There are allusions to traditions honoring women, mythology, and mysticism. Fantasy creeps into reality and leaves you wondering what is read. The tale is a dark one, but the ultimate message is about friendship and childhood memories.

This is a short book and a very quick read. What I love about this book is how visual it is. It feels like watching a story unfold not just reading one. I also enjoy the fact that it leaves you wondering what to believe. The boy in this book is a reader and his words describe this book for me:  "I liked myths. They weren't adult stories and they weren't children's stories. They were better than that. They just were."

Thursday, October 3, 2013


Title:  Heartburn
Author:  Norah Ephron
Publication Information:  Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1983. 153 pages.

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

Favorite Quote:  "Why do you feel you have to turn everything into a story? ... Because if I tell the story, I control the version. Because if I tell the story, I can make you laugh, and I would rather have you laugh at me than feel sorry for me. Because if I tell the story, it doesn't hurt as much. Because if I tell the story, I can get on with it."

Rachel Sampstat is a cookbook author, a wife, and her mother. Mark Feldman is a syndicated columnist and Rachel's husband. The book begins as Rachel, seven months pregnant, learns that her husband is having an affair and has been for several months.

What ensues through the rest of the story are different reflections on relationships through Rachel and Mark's stories and the stories of the couples around them. What keeps people together? What drives them apart? Can you move beyond a betrayal like infidelity?

The emotions and complicated relationships in this book are real life - sometimes clear and sometimes a jumbled mess. Some parts of the book are funny, but to me, the sadness emerges more so than the humor.

The book's pace is somewhat frantic. To me, it adds to the sadness, leaving an impression of "if you run fast enough, you can outrun your own emotions". Written from Rachel's point of view, the book seems to flit between her varied thoughts and sometimes goes in all different directions - her first marriage, her husband's infidelity, the Washington DC political scene, friends, recipes, her parents, and other things. Sometimes it is like following a really long monologue without any given thread becoming fully developed.

This book was made into a movie starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson. Usually, I prefer the books over the movies. With that cast and the nature of the story, this one may be better as a movie. I guess I will have to watch and decide.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Songs of Willow Frost

Title:  Songs of Willow Frost
Author:  Jamie Ford
Publication Information:  Ballantine Books, The Random House Publishing Group, Random House, Inc. 2013. 331 pages.

Book Source:  I read this book based on how much I enjoyed the author's first book, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.

Favorite Quote:  "The uncomfortable truth is that no one is all bad, or all good. Not mother and fathers, sons and daughters, or husbands and wives. Life would be much easier if that were the case. Instead, everyone ... was a confusing mix of love and hate, joy and sorrow, longing and forgetting, misguided truth and painful deception."

Willow Frost is a Chinese American actress. William Eng is a twelve year old Chinese American boy living in an orphanage. He has lived there for five years since his mother's body was carried away from their apartment in Seattle. He remembers a life before; he remembers his mother's love.

One day, as a special treat, the orphanage children are taken to the movies. He sees Willow Frost on the screen and believes that she is his mother, Liu Song, even though he has believed that she died. He and his friend Charlotte, a young blind resident of the orphanage, run away to find Willow Frost.

The story continues with William's, Charlotte's, but most of all Willow Frost's story. The reader learns a story of abuse, loss, love, betrayal, and the difficult choice of a parent. Set in the twenties and the Depression, it becomes also a story of the times and the struggles of people who could not provide for their children. The historical references to the early days of the film industry and events like the massacre at Seattle Wah Mee Club provide the backdrop to this story.

The book is predictable - the story of William's birth, Charlotte's story, even the ending. The other incongruous note in the book is that William and Charlotte are so young. Yet, the insight the characters show is well beyond their years. You might say that this makes the book somewhat unrealistic or you might choose to say that the traumatic experiences of their children makes them older than their chronological age. I choose to go with the latter interpretation.

The bottom line is that Jamie Ford weaves such an emotionally gripping tale that the other things don't matter. The emotions hit you even as you anticipate them. The age of the characters ceases to matter as you feel their sense of pain and abandonment and even joy.

Loved Jamie Ford's first book. Loved this one. Can't wait to see what comes next.