Friday, October 31, 2014

The Hurricane Sisters

Title:  The Hurricane Sisters
Author:  Dorothea Benton Frank
Publication Information:  William Morrow. 2014. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0062132520 / 978-0062132529

Book Source:  I read this book based on the description and the cover.

Favorite Quote:  "If I have learned anything about raising children, its that keeping the conversation going is so very important. Once you stop talking to each other terrible things can happen."

The Hurricane Sisters is a very quick read that starts off as the story of a somewhat normally dysfunctional family and ends up somewhere completely different. It tells the story of three generations of women.

Maisie is the eccentric matriarch, living live on her own terms with the insight that comes with age. She has learned to live with the death of her child and is choosing joy and life. Her character and escapades - involving a boyfriend and a llama farm - add a touch of humor to this book.

Liz is the middle aged wife and mother. She has always felt the burden of her sister's death and living up to who and what her sister would have been. She is at a crossroads, wondering when life and her marriage lost its joy. "I wondered then for a moment or two which came first? Him not caring or me being sad?" Liz finds her solace in her work with abused women.

Ashley is twenty-something, with big dreams of career and success through her art. At the moment, she is living in her parent's beach house and still struggling to make ends meet. She, with her brother Ivy's support and her roommate's help, comes up with some pretty creative ideas to supplement her income. She is also on the cusp of what she feels may be the relationship around which to build her life. Her adventures bring her close to trouble with the authorities and worse.

As with any family, the strong bond and the discord between mothers and daughters exist. The need for approval. The need for control. The love. "Love is the most important things there is ... Love, family ... these are the things that matter; the things to cherish."

The cover and the description of the book suggest a family saga and a light, beach-y read. However, this book quickly gets to its much more serious agenda - to raise awareness about domestic violence, particularly in South Carolina.

The afterward of the book has notes on domestic violence and a link to My Sister's House. This is an South Carolina organization providing support to domestic abuse victims. According to their website, South Carolina ranked number one in the country in terms of female victims killed by male perpetrators in 2011! Domestic violence is a crime that occurs too frequently, annually resulting in about 1,200 deaths and almost 3 million injuries. That is just the reported cases. Estimates suggest that for every reported case, about 10-30 go unreported. I appreciate the author's effort to raise awareness for this serious issue.

The message of the book clearly overtakes the story in the book. The characters are hastily drawn as is the plot. Some descriptions mimic social and ethnic stereotypes, which is unfortunate. Dorothea Benton Frank is well known for her beautiful Low Country settings and atmosphere; this book does not really reflect that. Other than the statistics, this book could have been set anywhere. The link between the "hurricane sisters" and the rest of the book really is never fully developed. The exploration of that story and its impact would have added more substance to the book.

Three stars primarily for the message and awareness it brings.

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

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Book of Strange New Things

Title:  The Book of Strange New Things
Author:  Michel Faber
Publication Information:  Hogarth. 2014. 512 pages.
ISBN:  055341884X / 978-0553418842

Book Source:  I received this book through a publisher's giveaway free of cost in exchange for an honest review. Thank you Shelf Awareness!

Favorite Quote:  "I miss you. I miss living through the visible moments of life with you."

The title - The Book of Strange New Things - is a reference to the Bible. Peter and his wife Bea are people of faith and spend their lives bringing word of their faith to others. Peter gets the opportunity to travel to a land far away - light years aways, galaxies away - on a mission. He leaves Bea on Earth and goes on this mission to a place called the Oasis. He proceeds with his mission of bringing his faith to the Oasans, the aliens native to the Oasis. To the Oasans, the Bible is the book of strange new things.

The story follows his life on the Oasis, but includes the correspondence between Peter and Bea, who remains on earth. Peter's work proceeds with new and strange experiences every day - some better than he could ever have hoped. At the same time, things on Earth deteriorate. Calamities upon calamities begin to occur. Bea's struggle to survive becomes more and more precarious. The physical distance between Peter and Bea is there. The emotional distance becomes greater and greater as they face totally different worlds and situations. This pattern pretty much continues for the over five hundred pages of the book.

The story focuses primarily on Peter. We hear of Bea - character and situation - only through her correspondence with Peter. I actually find her the more intriguing character and her story the more interesting one. At one point, Bea describes Peter as "an innocent little kid at heart." He comes across more selfish than innocent and pretty unlikable. I do wish the book had included more of Bea's perspective and story.

Physically, this book looks beautiful and is definitely indicative of the Biblical references. The sides are gold-edged, perhaps a nod to the printing of sacred texts. The cover art of the two hands reaching is reminiscent of Michelangelo's painting Creation of Man. This painting is part of the mural on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. It depicts the Biblical story of creation from the Book of Genesis.

The back cover reads simply, "I am with you always, even unto the end of the world." This statement is found in the Bible, Matthew 28:20. In the context of this book, the phrase of course describes Peter's religious message. It can also be used in the very human context of Peter and Bea's relationship. This is the first time in their married life that they have been separated in this manner. Can they be the support for each other even as they are so far apart?

The Book of Strange Things is aptly named as it includes many strange descriptions. An awkward coupling in the back seat of a car in the first ten pages. People referred to repeatedly by the color of their skin or ethnicity. Disparaging comments about different ethnic backgrounds. Repeated descriptions of and references to physical needs, from hygiene habits to sexual issues. Alien described as fetus-faced. The details of the book are not just strange but also unpleasant. So much so that they detract from the story itself and make the book very hard to keep reading.

The length of the book, the ending, and the unpleasant descriptions all make this an unpalatable read for me and leave me wondering why? What was the point?

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

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Winter Guest

Title:  The Winter Guest
Author:  Pam Jenoff
Publication Information:  Harlequin MIRA. 2014. 352 pages.
ISBN:  0778315967 / 978-0778315964

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

Favorite Quote:  "Mine is not the story of the ghettos and the camps, but of a small village in the hills, a chapel in the darkness of the night. I should write it down, I suppose. The younger ones do not remember, and when I am gone there will be no one else ... But I cannot ... I cannot find the words to do justice to the people that lived, and the things that transpired among us."

Eighteen year old Helena and Ruth are twins trying to care for three young siblings in rural Poland during World War II. Their father has died, and their mother is in a hospital, with no hope of recovery in sight. Ruth takes on the motherly role in the family; she is described as the gentler one to whom the younger children turn for nurturing. Helena is described as the strong, sturdy one. She takes on the role her father had, making herself responsible for providing for the family, taking care of the home, and making the trek to the city to check on their mother.

On one of her city trips. Helena discovers a soldier in the woods. Sam's plane has crashed, and he is injured. She decides to hide him and help him survive and accomplish his mission. Two sisters, one soldier, war, spies, friends, lovers, enemies - that becomes the story of this book.

This book is set in a war. It has all the makings of a historical story about World War II, the plight of the Polish people, the plight of the Jews, and the role of the United States. What the book becomes, however, is a story of two sisters, their relationship, what binds them, and what tears them apart - decisions that are not truly about the war going on around them. The story of their relationship overshadows the story of the war.

The premise of this book is one that should evoke sympathy and caring. Here are two young women whose father has died and whose mother is in a hospital fighting for her life. They live in a war zone. They are trying to hold on to life and keep life bearable for three younger siblings. They sound like young women dealing with adverse circumstances with courage and strength. However, the characterization does not create that image at all. What comes across most clearly, unfortunately, is the sibling rivalry and the resentment between the two sisters.

This book is also historically inaccurate. Chapter 1 begins with a statement of time and place, "Poland, 1940." The story is set in a small Polish village, and one character is an American soldier. The issue with that is one of timing. The Nazi Germany attack on Poland occurred in September 1939. However, the United States did not enter the war until after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. An American soldier would not have been in Poland in 1940.

The ending ties the entire book up in a neat package. The book reveals what happens to all the characters but not how. Some of those resolutions, like the unlikely scenario of finding someone in a concentration camp, seem far-fetched. No explanation is given; just that it happened. So, the answer of "what happened" is not a satisfactory one because it does not explain how.

This is the first book I have read by Pam Jenoff. While this is not the book for me, I am a fan of historical fiction. I will perhaps try another one of her works.

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

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The High Divide

Title:  The High Divide
Author:  Lin Enger
Publication Information:  Algonquin Books. 2014. 352 pages.
ISBN:  1616203757 / 978-1616203757

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

Favorite Quote:  "Respect where it's due, now that's one thing. But listen here - don't be quick to look up to a man who seems to take pleasure in your looking up to him."

The time is 1886. The setting is the great plains of Minnesota. Ulysses and Gretta Pope are eking out a living with their sons Eli and Danny. One morning, Gretta awakens to find Ulysses gone. He leaves behind a note with few words, "a chance for work, hard cash." Weeks later, there is no word.

Without his mother's permission, Eli goes in search of his father. He intends to go alone, but Danny pursues him and won't be left behind. They have nothing much to go on except their father's note and a letter to their father from a woman. Along the way, they meet with danger and with kindness. Ultimately, Gretta too goes after her boys.

What do they find? Why does Ulysses truly leave? What discoveries lie upon this journey? Will Ulysses, Gretta, Eli, and Danny find their way home and be a family again?

From Gretta, Eli, and Danny's perspective, Ulysses leaves because "We're not enough for you - Mom, Danny, me." What force is strong enough to pull a man away from a family who loves him and whom he loves? Gretta and Eli shockingly learn that there are parts of Ulysses' past that he has kept hidden from them. His reason for leaving have to do with a his quest to redeem that past.

From Ulysses' perspective, he loves his family, but "no matter what he has, there are things a man can't leave behind, things beyond him. That's right and wrong...". For Ulysses, these things are memories of his past and events that he wishes he could undo or at least forgive himself for.

The High Divide is about a man in danger - from the wilderness he finds himself in and even more so from his own guilt and emotions. It is about a family in danger - from the dire economic straits in which they find themselves, from the sometimes hostile environment and from the secrets they hold from each other. The different perspectives from Ulysses, Gretta, and Eli each provide an aspect of the story - a man buried in guilt, a woman feeling betrayed and abandoned, and a child trying to hold his family together. Through the story, the book also brings to light a history of the plains - the treatment of the American Indians, the impact of expansion on the land and the people, and the destruction of the animal herds. These book seamlessly blends these elements into the story of the Pope family.

This is very quietly powerful story. It seems like a slow moving narrative, but I find myself wrapped up in this family and in the glorious vistas of setting. Nothing much seems to happen, but huge physical and emotional distances are crossed. The story seems vast and quiet on the surface much like its Plains setting. Yet, simmering underneath, is a sea of emotions - love, guilt, betrayal. and forgiveness.

Life in the 1800s Minnesota is not one I can envision living in. The book paints a hauntingly beautiful picture of the time and the place and brings me completely into that world. The characters and the emotions, however, are much more universal such that I find myself feeling the emotions of the characters. Our past makes each one of us the person we are today; one decision at one point of time can have an impact throughout our lives. The quest to undo mistakes of our past and to seek redemption makes for a powerful and a very real story.

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

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Story Hour

Title:  The Story Hour
Author:  Thrity Umrigar
Publication Information:  Harper. 2014. 336 pages.
ISBN:  006225930X / 978-0062259301

Book Source:  I read this story based on the title and description.

Favorite Quote:  "We can't be responsible for other people's reactions to us ... We can only make sure that our intentions are good."

Lakshmi comes to the United States as a young bride. She has left her home and all she loves. She has married a man she barely knows. She is in a land that is completely foreign to her. Language is an issue. Culture is an issue. Lack of support is an issue. Marital discord is an issue. In desperation, Lakshmi attempts suicide. She is unsuccessful and ends up in the hospital under Maggie's care.

Maggie is a psychologist. She is married to an Indian man; this is perhaps the reason she is called in on Lakshmi's case. "Do white people presume some primal solidarity between all people of color?" Maggie is going through troubles of her own. She is having an affair and is uncertain of where her future leads.

Lakshmi and Maggie's relationship starts as that of patient and doctor, but it progresses to something resembling a friendship. Is it though? As they learn more about each other, they discover both their differences - "how vast the chasm that separated them - education, language, nationality, race" - and their similarities - "She go from being my teacher to becoming plain woman like me ... She turn  out same as me. Ordinary." Through this journey together, each woman also is on a journey of self-discovery and makes changes in her life for hopefully the better.

Lakshmi's story has potential to develop into more. Although the book begins with Lakshmi's attempting suicide, the story reveals her other decisions and the path that led her to this point. The book brings in the story of Lakshmi's life in India and how she comes to marry a virtual stranger. It brings in the motivation behind that decision and the far reaching repercussions. However, this aspect is narrated as the "big reveal" and the source of the guilt that Lakshmi harbors rather than being developed as a story in and of itself.

The other issue with Lakshmi's story is the way in which it is told. In an effort to make the character more authentic, Lakshmi's story is told in broken English. That is true to character, but after a while, it is just difficult to keep reading. Perhaps, maintaining that broken English in just the dialogue could have conveyed the same character? It would definitely be less awkward to read.

I just don't understand Maggie's character and don't particularly like her character. She is respected in her profession and is in a stable marriage. Yet, she's off having an affair. Her need for that is never made clear other than a general boredom with her own life. As a physician, she crosses a professional boundary with Lakshmi's, allowing their lives to overlap and for them to establish a relationship beyond doctor and patient. Maggie and her husband help Lakshmi gain independence and confidence. Yet, Maggie doesn't really offer friendship either. Maggie's character just never completely comes together.

This is the first book I have read by Thrity Umrigar. If I base a decision on this one book, I probably would not read any more. However, I have also had several people recommend her work to me. Maybe I'll try a different book.

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

Saturday, October 18, 2014

A Perfect Life

Title:  A Perfect Life
Author:  Danielle Steel
Publication Information:  Delacorte Press. 2014. 320 pages.
ISBN:  0345530942 / 978-0345530943

Book Source:  I read this book just because.

Favorite Quote:  "After that, all I cared about was my career. It didn't hurt as much as loving a person. People die, they cheat, they lie, they disappoint you. And work is just work."

I have read Danielle Steel books for a long time. At one point in my life, the characters and the stories really resonated with me. Not as much anymore, but I still continue to look for her books as they come out:

In this book, Blaise McCarthy is a TV news person. She is beautiful. She is well off financially. She is successful in her career. Other aspects of her life, however, show the cracks in her "perfect" life. Her place at the network is being threatened by a younger, newer reporter. Blaise still hangs on to a old relationship that was not healthy for her and did not end well. She deals with her daughter's disability is an almost passive manner.

My biggest issue in this book is the decisions that Blaise makes regarding her daughter. Salima goes blind at a young age as an effect of Type 1 diabetes. Blaise places her in a full-time boarding school. Unfortunately, that choice does not lead to Salima learning the skills to live with her disability. Instead, it results in her being in a cocoon, completely sheltered and completely cared for but also completely unable to care for herself. Blaise visits when she can, but Salima rarely leaves her comfort zone.

It is disappointing to see that treatment of a disability. It seems out of character with someone who successfully manages her career, manages life as a single parent, and is a strong independent woman. Would you not want the same independence and confidence for your child? This kind of institutionalization also seems out of place in this day and age. Why should blindness prevent Salima from fully participating in her life and from exploring her opportunities as any other young person would?

To make things worse, the turnaround is instant. Salima is forced home upon the death of her school caretaker. Along with her comes a replacement caretaker - Simon. Simon is a man who pushes the boundaries set for Salima and forces her out of her shell. Yet, the change is so quick as to be unrealistic. Overnight, Salima goes from being a teenager who cannot even dress herself to a young woman chasing a life and a career. Life is not that simple. In the interest of keeping a story readable and concise, I could see glossing over some of the tough details. This book, however, provides no details despite its length. It goes into none of the trials and tribulations that must be part of this process.

Other than Salima's story, the rest of this book is pretty much standard Danielle Steel fare - beautiful people, a little romance, some trying circumstances - all coming together at the end for a predictable ending. Unfortunately, I could not get past the treatment of Salima's blindness to enjoy the rest of the book for what it was - a quick little romance story.

Lately, I have been disappointed in the Danielle Steel books I have read. Part of that is due to the fact that my reading habits have changed. Part of it is due to the content of the books. Regardless of the lack of depth, the books used to be able to elicit an emotional response or provide that feel good story when you need it. Unfortunately, this book does neither. Maybe I will stop looking for the new ones now.

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

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Hot Sauce Cookbook: The Book of Fiery Salsa and Hot Sauce Recipes

Title:  The Hot Sauce Cookbook:  The Book of Fiery Salsa and Hot Sauce Recipes
Author:  Rockridge Press
Publication Information:  Rockridge Press. 2014. 156 pages.
ISBN:  1623153654 / 978-1623153656

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

Favorite Quote:  "In fact, all over the world, different cultures have some kind of hot sauce ... A hot sauce is basically any spicy, pungent condiment that contains some type of chili combined with vinegar, oil, vegetables, fruit, and other spices."

The Hot Sauce Cookbook delivers exactly what it promises:
  • 49 hot sauce recipes
  • 27 food recipes using some of the sauces
  • General tips for making hot sauce including ingredients, equipments, and techniques
  • Discussion of pepper types and heat level
Part One of the book outlines the different types of chilis, presents a little history, and general guidelines for making hot sauce. The remainder of the book is organized by geographic areas:
  • Central America and the Sourwest (12 sauces/salsa recipes, 6 food recipes)
  • Louisiana (12 sauce recipes, 6 food recipes)
  • West Indies and the Caribbean (10 sauce recipes, 5 food recipes)
  • Asia  (10 sauce recipes, 5 food recipes)
  • "Beyond" (5 sauce recipes, 5 food recipes)
  • The book includes recipes for some of our family favorites such as Sriracha, red hot saucy like Franks, Tabasco-style hot sauce, Sambal Oelek, Peri Peri, and Harissa.
  • The ebook version has an interactive table of contents allowing a reader to jump to a particular recipe.
  • The sauce recipes clearly note how long a sauce may be kept in the refrigerator or if it may be frozen. Since most of the recipes yield 2-3 cups, storage is important.
  • Most of the sauce ingredients are basic ingredients such as onions, garlic, kosher salt, purified water, and vinegar. The most challenging part of some recipes may be finding the different types of chilis to try.
  • As not all chilis may be available in all areas, it would be helpful to know if certain types could be substituted in recipes.
  • Most of the sauce recipes yield 2-3 cups of sauce which is a fairly large quantity. It would be helpful to have the recipe scaled to different yield amounts - maybe a cup of sauce.
  • Some but not all of the sauce recipes indicate what foods these sauces may accompany well. It would be helpful to have a note with each recipe suggesting what the sauce may go well with.
  • The discussion at the start of the book includes the scoville measurement of heat for each of the chili peppers described. It would be helpful to have some indication of heat to go with each of the recipes.
  • The version of the book I received includes no pictures. A display of the different kinds of peppers or pictures to go with the food recipes using some of the sauces would really add to the enjoyment of this book.
  • The version of the book I received includes no index. The inclusion of one would be a helpful addition even though this is a fairly short book.
My family and I are definite fans of hot sauce. I look forward to trying out more of the recipes in this book.

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

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Martian: A Novel

Title:  The Martian: A Novel
Author:  Andy Weir
Publication Information:  Crown. 2014. 384 pages.
ISBN:  0804139024 / 978-0804139021

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through Edelweiss free of cost in exchange for an honest review. Thank you Blogging for Books!

Favorite Quote:  "It was a ridiculous sequences of events that led to me almost dying, and an even more ridiculous sequence that led to me surviving."

The Martian is definitely one of the most fun books I have read in a while. The book is about dire circumstances, but it is such an entertaining story. Take a little bit of the movie Gravity. Add in the book Robinson Crusoe. Then throw in MacGyver. That will get you close to what this book is all about.

Mark Watney is an astronaut. He and a team are on a mission to Mars. On day 6 on Mars, an accident occurs. The mission is aborted. Thinking that Mark has died, his team does what they have been trained to do - they evacuate and leave him behind. The only thing is that Mark is not dead. He is now stranded on Mars, all alone. He knows the next mission to Mars is scheduled to arrive in four years. Can he survive until then?

Mark Watney is an engineer and a botanist. He is brilliant. He is also irreverent and cocky. He curses and talks in sexual innuendo. In another story, in another context, he may not be particularly likable and may come across as somewhat juvenile. However, he is alone, stranded with very little hope of survival. In this context, his behavior does not appear out of place. It comes across as part of his survival mechanism. He chooses to face his life and death situation with brashness and humor. He laughs when he could just as easily cry and give up.

The chapters chronicling Mark's time on Mars are first person journal entries. The topics of the journal entries range from day to day survival to commentary on his former crew mate's choice of disco music and 70's TV for entertainment, occasional reflection on his situation, and descriptions of his every scientific attempt to increase his chance of survival.

Mind you, the book has many technical details about what Mark "macgyver's" to help himself survive. How can you make water? How can you create soil to make an environment suitable for Earth crops? What can use for survival when you have no other choice? I am not an engineer or a botanist but don't feel a need to be enjoy and understand the story. The book is not about the engineering, but about ingenuity. It is about trying things that fail.

On the serious side of things, this book is about an individual pulling out reserves we don't know we have until put in what seems like an impossible situation. It is about not giving up even though all logic may dictate that no hope exists. On a more global level, the book is about how far do you go to save one of your own? Is there a cost that is too great? Are there ever barriers that cannot be overcome and compromises that cannot be made when a life is at stake? If you are Mark Watney, you hope not.

That's the deep stuff if you want to read into the story. Even if you don't, the descriptions are entertaining, and Mark's humorous commentary on it even more so.

A little bit science-y. A little bit geeky. A whole lot of fun!

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

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Leaving Time: A Novel

Title:  Leaving Time: A Novel
Author:  Jodi Picoult
Publication Information:  Ballantine Books. 2014. 416 pages.
ISBN:  0345544927 / 978-0345544926

Book Source:  I received this book through a publisher's giveaway free of cost in exchange for an honest review. Thank you Shelf Awareness!

Favorite Quote:  "I understand why Jenna needs this:  Otherwise, it's not a complete circle, it's a line, and lines unravel and send you off in directions you never intended to go. Endings are critical ... They need the details of those last few moments, because it is all they will have for the rest of their lives."

I did not see that ending coming! If you want to read this book, please do not read anything with a spoiler. You will not be able to read the book. It did remind me of one movie in particular, but I won't say what. That would completely give away the story.

Jenna is a precocious thirteen year old living with her grandmother. Her father Thomas is in a mental institution. Her mother Alice disappeared when Jenna was three. At that time, Thomas and Alice run an elephant sanctuary. Alice's specialty was studying elephant memory and grief and in rescuing at risk animals. The events at that time led to a woman's death, Alice's disappearance and the dismantling of the elephant sanctuary.

Jenna has no memory of the exact events that led to her mother's disappearance and her father's breakdown, and her grandmother won't speak of them. Yet, Jenna strongly believes that her mother would never have abandoned her. She studies what reminders she has left of Alice. She continually searches online to find some trace. Unfortunately, to no avail.

To further her search, she seeks out the help of a psychic Serenity. Serenity, at one point in her life, was a well known psychic. She is now what she refers to as a "swamp witch" - a fraud who makes up and delivers what her clients want to hear. After first refusing, she feels compelled to help Jenna.

Jenna also seeks out Virgil Stanhope, one of the detectives who investigated the events surrounding Alice's disappearance. He is no longer with the police force, working instead as a private detective. Alice's case is one that haunts him - the one that got away. What could he have done differently? What should he have done differently? Jenna's appearance in his life brings all these memories back, and he wants an answer.

The story is told in alternating first person narratives through Jenna, Virgil, Serenity, and Alice. From Jenna's perspective, we get the young woman who looks for closure and to finally know that she was not abandoned. From Virgil, we get the detective applying his contacts and his experience to solve a mystery that went unsolved years ago. Serenity brings in the spiritual dimension and the existence of ghosts and spirits who linger in this world. Alice's sections gradually fill in the story of what led to the events of that night. The suspense of actually happened that night lasts until almost the end the of the book and leads to an ending that was a complete surprise to me.

What I love about Jodi Picoult's books is that she tackles tough topics, and her books always leave me with new knowledge and with a lot to think about. The books present a primary point of view and do it well with research and a story that makes you read on and on until the very last page. As a reader, you can agree or disagree, but either way the point is well made. For most of her books, I usually find myself putting a lot of things in my life on hold to get to the end of the book. Then, I find myself putting them away, but continuing to think about them days later. This one follows the same pattern.

This book takes on the issue of grief. Wikipedia defines grief as "a multifaceted response to loss, particularly to the loss of someone or something that has died, to which a bond or affection was formed. Although conventionally focused on the emotional response to loss, it also has physical, cognitive, behavioral, social, spiritual, and philosophical dimensions."

Two things are clear from this definition. Grief, though normally associated with death, can occur as a result of any loss. Jenna grieves because she feels like her mother abandoned her. Virgil grieves for the unsolved case that haunts him still. Serenity grieves both for the burden that her skills as a psychic bring and the realizations that come with the loss of those skills. Alice, Thomas, Gideon, and Nevvi all grieve individually through their own sorrows.

Grief also manifests itself differently in each person - physically, emotionally, behaviorally, and spiritually. The reactions to grief and the actions grief can lead to are completely individual. Jenna refuses to quit searching for her mother. Serenity regrets the loss of her abilities but at the same time hides from the notoriety her abilities brought. Virgil walks away and attempts to forget through drinking. Alice disappears. Thomas suffers a breakdown. Others seek revenge from what they identify as the cause of their grief. Different people, different responses.

This book addresses grief through the human characters, of course. It also presents a lot of research on elephant behavior and memory - particularly the elephant's ability to grieve. The parallels are amazing. The PBS documentary Unforgettable Elephants makes the point that "Through years of research, scientists have found that elephants are capable of complex thought and deep feeling. In fact, the emotional attachment elephants form toward family members may rival our own." The author's note at the end of this book presents additional resources and ways in which an interested reader can impact conservation of these amazing animals.

In an interview, Jodi Picoult describes the book as follows: "This is a book about the lengths we go to for those who have left us behind; about the staying power of love; and about how three broken souls might have just the right pieces to mend each other. I won’t tell you much more, but I guarantee that when you finish, the first thing you’re going to want to do is reread the book." Pretty much. I want to reread the book to see if I could have seen the ending coming. I don't necessarily agree with everything she has to say, but I so always appreciate the way in which she says it. I also cannot wait to see what Jodi Picoult tackles next.

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

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Little Mercies

Title:  Little Mercies
Author:  Heather Gudenkauf
Publication Information:  Harlequin MIRA. 2014. 320 pages.
ISBN:  0778316335 / 978-0778316336

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

Favorite Quote:  "I guess what I'm trying to say is that we all have our moments. We all have those times when we turn our backs, close our eyes, become unguarded ... I know that no matter what happens you'll get through this. We'll get through this. You have to look for the little mercies, the small kindnesses and good that come from the terrible."

Little Mercies takes on the issue of child welfare system from two perspectives. Ellen Moore is an experienced social worker with a family of her own. Jenny Baird is a ten-year old girl who has been in the system and is now trying to stay out of it.

Ellen is devoted to her work and her family. She is pulled between the conflicting demands of her career, her husband, her children, and her mother. She is trying to juggle all the balls and is constantly running from one to the other. One day, a crisis in her job and her attention leads to an accident that has a huge life altering effect on her family. Is it neglect? Is it an accident? Is it abuse? What happens when a caretaker of the system becomes one of the accused?

Jenny Baird is a little girl living with her father - no job, no money, no home. Circumstances put her in a new town all alone with only the hope of finding her grandmother based on an address on an old letter. Jenny's life has been a constant struggle to survive. Her greatest fear is ending up back in the foster care system.

The characters in the book - particularly Ellen, Jenny, and Ellen's mother Maudene - are well drawn. The other characters - Ellen's husband, the children, Ellen's friend Joe - exist on the periphery and are not really fleshed out, but the story is really about Ellen, Jenny, and Maudene.

Ellen's struggle to balance career and home, especially a career as emotionally draining as hers, is a struggle that many people can relate to. Her realization of how little separates her and some of clients is a life lesson that many of us need to learn. We don't know the struggles of any other person; yet, often, we stand in judgement of their actions. Ellen at one point says, "if I ever was able to be a social worker again, I would look at my clients a little bit differently, with a bit more empathy."

Jenny's struggle to survive and her fears come through clearly in the book. Her statements of fear of police and social workers. Her attachment to her backpack. Her need to hoard food. Her reaction to Ellen's children who are surrounded by a loving family. Her need to find a family and a connection no matter how troubled it may be. At times, Jenny sounds older than her age, but perhaps that is because of the life she has led.

Maudene's character is the nurturer. She is the mother and the grandmother - the one who loves selflessly and cares for all those around her. Her loneliness since her husband's death is captured and described subtly throughout the book. Her need to find a connection and be needed is perhaps as strong as Jenny's need for a family.

My concern with this book is that the plot seems contrived. Too many coincidences come about for the story to unfold exactly as it does. I won't say what happens, but I will say that all the dots connect a little too easily. The book ends too neatly. You know where the book is going, but it is an engaging read to get there.

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

Monday, October 6, 2014

Many Lives, Many Masters: The True Story of a Prominent Psychiatrist, His Young Patient, and the Past-Life Therapy That Changed Both Their Lives

Title:  Many Lives, Many Masters: The True Story of a Prominent Psychiatrist, His Young Patient, and the Past-Life Therapy That Changed Both Their Lives
Author:  Brian L. Weiss
Publication Information:  Fireside. 1988. 219 pages.
ISBN:  0671657860 / 978-0671657864

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

Favorite Quote:  "It is important to weed out the false from the true so that the field is not discredited."

Many Lives, Many Masters: The True Story of a Prominent Psychiatrist, His Young Patient, and the Past-Life Therapy That Changed Both - a long title for a relatively short book. The "prominent psychiatrist" is Brian Weiss whose credentials include Columbia University and the Yale University School of Medicine. The "young patient" is Catherine, who came to Dr. Weiss at the age of twenty seven suffering from anxieties and fears. The "past-life therapy" is the main focus of this book.

The first eighteen months of therapy for Catherine utilized conventional methods but with little or no success.  At that time, the therapy was modified to try hypnosis. Through hypnosis, Catherine recalled memories of past lives - many many past lives reaching back centuries. Further on through hypnosis, Dr. Weiss led Catherine through memories of the times in between lives when the Masters spoke. The Masters brought lessons and guidance - you can put your own interpretation as to who these Masters may be. After the sessions, Catherine had no recollection of these Masters. It appeared that they spoke to and for Dr. Weiss. The therapy continued until Catherine's symptoms were deemed cured. This time period and process is what this book describes.

Two ways exist for me to analyze and review this book. One is to present my assessment of the content. That I will not do. Whether someone believes in reincarnation and past lives is a personal choice. My choice may not reflect yours. Nor would it invalidate yours. To you is your belief. To me is mine.

The second way to analyze this book is to look at it as a book and as a book coming from a scientific environment with theory and evidence. Looked at in this way, this is not the book for me.

Every chapter of the book is essentially the same. Catherine comes into a session. She remembers a past life - life, sometimes trauma, and death - and describes it under hypnosis. Sometimes, the Masters speak after Catherine has died in that past life. The book never progresses beyond that description. It contains no analysis at all. At time, it references that other research exists and other case studies exist to parallel Catherine's case, but the book never elaborates. I found myself skimming through sections trying to find a place where the book brings the research together to state a thesis or a conclusion. It never comes.

This book is essentially a case study of one patient - Catherine. Unfortunately, the tone of the book is very condescending towards Catherine. Her perspective and insight on her experience is never discussed. At one point, the book refers to her as "simple," "not a scholar," and with certain knowledge "lying beyond her capacity." Even the title refers to her as "his young patient" even though she was close to thirty years old at the start of therapy. Meanwhile, on the first page of the book, the book clearly states the author's credentials -  Phi Beta Kappa, magna cum laude education at Columbia and his degree from Yale University. Even in the title, the book refers to "a prominent psychiatrist." The entire tone of the book is very off-putting.

The other aspect of this book is that of a self-help manual. The Masters speak through Catherine to bring messages about life and life skills. The self-help advice is not new and not anything that cannot found in many other books in that genre. Unfortunately, given the tone and lack of explanation in this book, it loses credibility.

Another concern is that this case study blurs the line between clinician and patient. Although based on Catherine's experience as a patient, the book reads as though it is really about the psychiatrist and his experience. Catherine seems helped by her memories but has no recollection of the Masters. It is stated several times through the book that the Masters are there for Dr. Weiss. Towards the end of the book, the author acknowledges, "Under ordinary circumstances, we might have begun terminating therapy weeks ago. We had continued in part because of my interest in the message from the Master..." That raises many concerns about the role of the clinician and which took precedence - the clinician needs or Catherine's.

Book Club side note: This book ended up being a relatively short discussion because for the most part, we agreed in our assessment. Most of us agreed on the condescending tone and repetitive nature of the book. Some of us were able to separate out the self-help component of the messages from the Masters. This led to an interesting discussion on beliefs and life choices.

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

Thursday, October 2, 2014

A Sudden Light

Title:  A Sudden Light
Author:  Garth Stein
Publication Information:  Simon & Schuster. 2014. 416 pages.
ISBN:  1439187037 / 978-1439187036

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

Favorite Quote:  "Perhaps that's what life is about - the search for such a connection. The search for magic. The search for the inexplicable. Not in order to explain it, or contain it. Simply in order to feel it. Because in that recognition of the sublime, we see for a moment the entire universe in the palm of our hand. And in that moment, we touch the face of God."

A beautiful setting, a Gothic feel, a ghostly mystery, a dysfunctional family. This book has all the making of an engaging tale. Trevor Riddell is a man telling the story of the summer he was fourteen, of the family secrets he discovered that summer, and of the changes that happened that summer.

This story has many, many (too many perhaps) layers:
  • Trevor as an adult reflecting back.
  • Trevor as a fourteen year old trying to mend his parent's marriage and figure out the secrets of his father's past.
  • Relationship between Trevor's parents.
  • Jones Riddell, Trevor's father returning to his childhood home after 23 years.
  • Relationship between Jones, his sister Serena, and their father Samuel.
  • Ghosts of Riddell House
  • Previous generations - conflicted Benjamin, business baron Elijah, and those around them.
  • Riddell House itself.
An attempt is made to weave a mystery around these different elements and the way in which they relate, but at the base of it all, the story is about a dysfunctional family and the power of relationships to build up and to destroy. Homosexuality and its unacceptability at that time in history, abuse, incest, dementia, other illnesses, and financial & business maneuverings all play a role in this family's past.

My favorite aspects of the book are the cover and the writing itself. The cover is part of what attracted me to the book. The descriptions of the house itself and the estate are as artistic as the cover. The Riddell family fortune comes from timber; the descriptions of the trees and forests seek to portray someone "experiencing the nature of the trees." The descriptions show a very clear environmental bent in the sometimes conflicting goals of business and environmental protection. An important and much needed message for our world. In the book, however, it is overshadowed by the machinations of the Riddell family. Their conflicts may be based on this more universal one, but the book really is about the individuals and the relationships.

Weaved throughout are also references to books and reading, which as an avid reader, I of course love! "With a book - presuming it's a good book - you can depend upon an outcome that adheres to the necessities of drama. The question will be answered. It has to be. The answer may not be happy; we can't guarantee a comedy. Sometimes tragedy strikes. But there will be a conclusion. Of that we can be sure. That's the whole point of a book." Based on the writing, I would definitely read other works by Garth Stein.

Overall, the book, however, does not work for me for a number of reasons. First, I guessed the resolution of the book quite early on. That completely removes the book's ghostly nature, not that it is that strong to begin with. The rest of the story then becomes just a matter of how the book gets to that eventual conclusion. Second, the narrator does not come across as believable. Even in the sections where is portrayed as fourteen year old, "Clever Trevor's" dialogue and actions come across as those of an adult. Finally, the setup and description of the story is of a spooky, somewhat Gothic tale; it is disappointing when the story does not deliver that. The story does a great buildup; there is a sense of something coming and something about to happen, but it never really does. The book delivers a multigenerational family saga with its own conflicts and intrigues but does not fulfill the promise of its description.

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