Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The House of Hawthorne

Title:  The House of Hawthorne
Author:  Erika Robuck
Publication Information:  NAL. 2015. 416 pages.
ISBN:  0451418913 / 978-0451418913

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

Opening Sentence:  "In the second-floor start room where we never go, someone has wound the music box."

Favorite Quote:  "Man's accidents are God's purposes."

The House of Hawthorne is built on the strength, sacrifice, and love of one woman. Say the name Nathaniel Hawthorne, and a renowned author comes to mind. Say the name Sophia Peabody Hawthorne and what comes to mind? Although an author and artist in her own right, Sophia Peabody Hawthorne is now most known for being Nathaniel Hawthorne's wife, if she is known at all.

Before reading this book, I knew nothing about Nathaniel Hawthorne's life or marriage. This book fictionalizes his marriage - a relationship that lasted almost 30 years. "Our love is a work of art. It is the great masterpiece of my life because it has been rendered over decades. It has been made of blood and tears and love and laughter and despair and a million tiny moments that in isolation seemed small, but as a part of this vast canvas convey a depth of feeling as has never been seen before and might never be seen again.

Unlike their described life which seems to center around Hawthorne, Nathaniel Hawthorne plays a supporting role in this book. This is Sophia's story and her perspective. It briefly presents her childhood, her life changing experiences in Cuba, and her return home. She meets Hawthorne through her sister, and the attraction is instant. From that point, Sophia's life is about caring for and enabling Hawthorne to achieve what he did:

  • "Try as I might I cannot image my Apollo slopping or ironing. He was made to write - not the engage in physical toil."
  • "I so often restrain my frustration for his sake..."
  • "He is so easily frustrated by the minute of life."
  • "I wish to be home, reassuring my husband with my touch."

Sophia Peabody is the one who held the Hawthorne household and, most likely, the man himself together through their life. Their married life included joys - love, children, publication of Hawthorne's works - and sorrows - death, illness, poverty. As a friend and a later critic warns, "...For you do not want to end up the little marker at the side of the grand headstone, where future writers and readers will lay their offerings, only honoring the man published and not the woman who supported and even made his work possible." That is indeed the epithet for Sophia as depicted in this book; in the pull between her artistic endeavors and her home, she chose home and family.

Sophia's thoughts almost always are of protecting Hawthorne. What is less clear is whether she was happy and whether he returned her caring in the same way. What makes this book such a marvelous read is that Sophia's caring is so very clearly exhibited. Yet, I find myself seeking to understand her emotions and thoughts for herself, in particular her struggle between home and art. That is much less clear, but the clues are there - in her comments about her art, in her memories of Cuba, and in the one instance in which she feels unable to offer him comfort. Did she ever regret her choice? Did she ever resent her husband for all her sacrifices? Did she ever question his inability to provide for them at many times in their lives? He loved her, but did he care for her in the way and with the ferocity with which she cared for him?

This book is a love story but seems a very real one - not the stuff of fairy tales but the stuff of life. Where love is not always balanced. Where sacrifices are made and are often unspoken. For all her time in the shadows, this is Sophia's time to shine.

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

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Texts from Jane Eyre: And Other Conversations with Your Favorite Literary Characters

Title:  Texts from Jane Eyre And Other Conversations with Your Favorite Literary Characters
Author:  Mallory Ortberg
Publication Information:  Henry Holt and Co. 2014. 240 pages.
ISBN:  1627791833 / 978-1627791830

Book Source:  I found this book browsing through the local library online catalog.

Opening Sentence:  "hiiiiiiii"

Favorite Quote:  "save my number okay" [from Medea to Glauce]

Texts from Jane Eyre is one of many books that reinterpret a story or stories into essentially a different "language". The History of the World According to Facebook presents what a record of history might have been if Facebook had always existed, and if everyone and everything posted on Facebook. Ian Doescher's Star Wars series reinterpret the original Star Wars trilogy into a Shakespearean play.

Texts from Jane Eyre, as the title implies, imagines text conversations between characters from modern and classical literature. Odysseus and Circe. Medea and Glauce. Lizzie Bennett and her mother. Plato and his brother Glaucon. Some of the more modern texts include Harry Potter, the Hunger Games, the American Girl series, and the Lorax. The book includes a fairly well rounded compilation from different time periods and different genres.

Each section is only a few pages, and, as you can imagine, really quick to read in text message. If you want a sample, check out The Toast. The author Mallory Ortberg is the co-editor of the site and features a "texts from" section. The idea for the book originally stems from her feature on The Hairpin. Both these sites provide a flavor of what has eventually become this book. Because the sketches are independent, it is a very easy book to read in short spurts. Leave it on your book stand, and pick it up when you need a quick laugh.

Fortunately, the book does not use text-speak or short hand like "LOL, "BRB", etc. The conversation really is a true reference to the original text. Reading the conversations requires an understanding of the original. It's really only funny if you "get" the reference and the unstated history. I find myself laughing out loud (LOL!) over the conversations from the texts I have read and then researching the ones I am not familiar with so that I could understand. Then, I laugh over those. The author knows her literature! The original characters are definitely recognizable in these texts.

In looking up unfamiliar references, I became familiar with texts I might not otherwise have read, and I love books that bring me to other books I have yet to discover. I find myself adding some to my never-gets-any-shorter to read list. This is definitely a book for the bibliophiles! It might also serve as an introduction to younger readers who may not yet have read the originals. It is by no means a tool to teach the original, but perhaps, a reader may be intrigued enough by the sketch to then read the original it references.

Reading a book like this one also requires a somewhat irreverent sense of humor. If reinterpreting and poking some fun at the classics is not for you, then this is not the book for you. Based on the original texts references, this book is for the serious readers; based on its content, it is for readers open to a little silliness in their lives. If you are both, this is definitely the book for you. Put seriousness aside, and just enjoy it.

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

Friday, April 24, 2015

The Dress Shop of Dreams

Title:  The Dress Shop of Dreams
Author:  Menna van Praag
Publication Information:  Ballantine Books. 2014. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0804178984 / 978-0804178983

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

Opening Sentence:  "When ordinary shoppers stumble into the little dress shop, they usually leave without buying anything."

Favorite Quote:  "It's a great shame ... that the heart cannot feel joy without also feeling pain, that it cannot know love without also knowing loss."

The surface plot of this book is about Cora Sparks, a studious scientist who never recovered from the mysterious death of her parents. Her grandmother Etta raised Cora after her parents' death and watched her forge a path in science in an effort to live up to her parents' unfinished legacy. Etta knows that there are secrets that Cora has buried and that perhaps her path should allow for more than science. So, it begins with Cora. A revelation from her grandmother leads her on a path of discovery of what happened to her parents and on a journey to herself.

More than the mystery of Cora's parents, The Dress Shop of Dreams is a story of love - secret loves that go unexpressed, actions we take to protect those we love, sacrifices we make for love, love where we don't expect it - romantic love in a myriad of expressions. Be warned, however. The love stories in this book are not always sweet and heart warming. Each has a sadder, darker element to them.

The first love story is Cora's. The scars of her childhood leave Cora unable to open herself up to see the love before her; she leads a somewhat sad, closed off life.

Investigating her parents' death, Cora meets a young detective. He is in the middle of a divorce, but he still loves his wife. His story leads to sad discoveries about the reasons for the divorce.

Walt is Cora's childhood friend; he has loved her all his life. However, he ends up involved with Milly, a young widow; he leads Milly on in a way that she certainly does not deserve. His voice brings magic to other people's lives, but he cannot bring it to his own. His unrequited love turns into sadness for someone else as well.

Milly is a young widow. Bereft after her husband's death, she begins to envision a future. However, when Walt's reality does not match the letters signed by him, she stands on the brink between the joy of new love and the sadness of loss.

Walt's boss is leading life alone. His love story seems to be living vicariously through the dreams of others.

Etta herself runs a dress shop, and not an ordinary one. Her dresses seems to find the right people at the right time in their lives. Etta's magical stitches in the dresses seem to reach wishes and desire that perhaps even the wearer does not know she had. However, Etta hides her own secrets and wishes well. Her love story is one of walking away to give the one she loved the freedom to pursue his life dream.

A local priest has the ability to hear confessions that his parishioners wish to share and to provide them the solace they need. However, the secrets of his own past make his heart heavy. The solace does not reach his sadness.

All these lives intersect in this one book. Sometimes sweetly, sometimes, disturbingly, and sometimes sadly. By the end, things sort themselves out as you would suspect they would. It's not quite the feel good book I expected, but it is a very quick, very easy read.  A few stitches in a dress, a little magic - All it takes is a little suspension of disbelief to spend a quiet afternoon with this story.

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

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Three Many Cooks: One Mom, Two Daughters: Their Shared Stories of Food, Faith & Family

Title:  Three Many Cooks: One Mom, Two Daughters: Their Shared Stories of Food, Faith & Family
Author:  Pam Anderson, Maggy Keet, Sharon Damelio
Publication Information:  Ballantine Books. 2015. 336 pages.
ISBN:  080417895X / 978-0804178952

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

Opening Sentence:  "Some people plan what they are going to do when they get together; our family plans what we are going to eat."

Favorite Quote:  "Talking about love - or truth or faith or beauty - only gets us so far. We need love we can touch, truth we can eat, faith we can drink, beauty we can share."

The "three many cooks" are Pam, Maggy, and Sharon - a mother and her two daughter. Pam Anderson is the author of seven cookbooks, former editor at Cook's Illustrated, and current food expert for AARP. Maggy Keet works as a fundraiser and pursues her passion for cooking with her family. Sharon Damelio also has a full timer career in non-profits and finds her relaxation in cooking.

Together, the mother and daughters team co-author the blog Three Many Cooks to, as they say on their website, invite people into their "favorite place" - the kitchen. The blog is a compilation of recipes, organized as you might see in a cookbook. Accompanying each recipe is a story from their lives - their history with this recipe or day to day events. The posts are authored individually by each of the three women.

This book picks up on the same theme. The book has fewer recipes and more blog like essays about life and lessons by each woman in turn. As such, they can be read as discrete essays or all together.

My favorites are the first and the last. One deals with the loss of a father; the other with a celebration of life. Both touch deep emotions; the first had me in tears. The topics for the others range from teenage rebellion, tough economic times, marriage, children, weight issues, and, of course, the mother-daughter and sister relationships. Each has a similar feel, and, of course, each one comes back to the role food has played at each juncture in their lives.

The book does not follow a chronological sequence; as such, certain junctures of their lives are visited through multiple essays and, hence, multiple perspectives. This results in a certain amount of repetitiveness in the books. For example, the move to Darien, the lessons learned in growing up having to work for things, and life lessons being passed down the generations in the kitchen are discussed many times. After a while, you wait for the book to take that topic beyond what has already been said and to reach what makes their story unique.

The best and worst part of the book is that the stories are sweet. The book is a nostalgic look back. It makes you want to reach out and gather family around. The stories are warm and comforting. Almost too much so. The nostalgia seems to gloss over what must have been some very tough times. The resolutions and journeys beyond the difficulties almost seem to come too easily. Perhaps, the essay format requiring a resolution before its end that lends to that feel. It is a feel good book, but the view through rose-colored glasses seems to create a veil between the reader and the reality of their lives.

I love and complete agree with the premise of how much life happens in and around food. It is certainly true in my family - food triggers memories, and food shared creates memories. A couple of the essay come close to capturing that feeling. but most just fall a little short in completing conveying those emotions.

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

Monday, April 20, 2015

The World Before Us

Title:  The World Before Us
Author:  Aislinn Hunter
Publication Information:  Hogarth. 2014. 368 pages.
ISBN:  0553418521 / 978-0553418521

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.

Opening Sentence:  "How many ways to begin?"

Favorite Quote:  "Names are the most valuable things. We have always said this. The are more valuable than the clocks, books, photographs and objects we find ourselves circling ... Names are pronouncements, entries, claims ... They say, I was, I am."

The World Before Us is a ghost story, in that, the ghosts are the main characters in the book. As such, the book is very different from what I expected. From the description, the book sounds like a mystery tying together two disappearances a century apart. The book actually is more a reflection on life and the things that bind us to the past and the things that define our identity.

The book is a very complex story, with multiple time periods, multiple narrators, and a whole lot of characters. The chronological timeline of the book is as follows: In the 1800s, a woman only identified as "N" disappears from the Whitmore Hospital for Convalescent Lunatics. About a century later, a little girl Lily disappears in the same woods. Jane, her babysitter, is traumatized by the event. Years later, Jane elects to study the Whitmore asylum as part of her graduate research. At age 34, Jane works in a museum and is still troubled by the two disappearances. The closing of the museum and an unexpected encounter with Lily's father, William, sends Jane running back to the same woods. She begins to search anew for the reasons behind the disappearances.

Jane's story is very scattered in this book and way too complicated. She is traumatized at age fifteen when Lily disappears. She builds a life, unable to let go of that trauma. Over the years, she has imagined the aftermath for William. Then, in flashbacks, she dreams of her own teenage crush on the man. Facing him in reality turns out to be nothing like her imaginings. So, now she is back in the town and woods around Whitmore. Why? It's never really made clear, except that the two disappearances have pretty much shaped her entire life. Along the way, she also lies about her identity and enters into an affair with a nineteen year old boy. By the end, nothing about Jane's story is resolved, and I am left puzzled by her choices.

Through Jane's research, we are also introduced to the Farringtons, who owned the estate near the Whitmore. Theirs is the story of wealth, sibling rivalries, parental favoritism, illicit affairs, and the prodigal son. It could be an entire family saga in and of itself expect for its cursory treatment here. Their story seems to be here to simply provide a setting for the first disappearance and a loose connection to the present.

Then, we have the group of ghosts, spirits, ethereal beings, or whatever you want to call them who surround Jane. They have no names and are at times like a collective Shakespearean chorus. Having lost their identity and their knowledge of who they were, they gather around Jane in the hopes that the work she does may perhaps reveal something about them. The group is very much like a family, with their disagreements but also the concern for each other.  Coming back to Whitmore and the neighboring Farrington estate triggers thoughts that perhaps they have been here before, perhaps they might know who they were.

Theirs is the most interesting part of the story, for it touches the most emotions and raises the philosophical questions in the book. The caring and the bickering and the sense of loss expressed so beautifully by the author makes these characters more alive than any of the living humans in the book. Although the entire book is a complicated a story that reaches no resolution, because of the characterization and writing of the ghosts, I look forward to reading more from the author.

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

Friday, April 17, 2015


Title:  Gilead
Author:  Marilynne Robinson
Publication Information:  Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2004. 247 pages.
ISBN:  0374153892 / 978-0374153892

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

Opening Sentence:  "I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I'm old, and you said, I don't think you're old."

Favorite Quote:  "But I've developed a great reputation for wisdom by ordering more books than I ever had time to read, and reading more books, by far, than I learned anything useful from, except, of course, that some very tedious gentlemen have written books. This is not a new insight, but the truth of it is something you have to experience to fully grasp."

The year is 1957. The place is the small town of Gilead, Iowa. The character is Reverend John Ames, suffering from heart disease and knowing that he may die before too long. Gilead is his epistle to his seven year old son. He writes, "I'm trying to make the best of our situation. That is, I'm trying to tell you things I might never have thought to tell you if I had brought you up myself, father and son, in the usual companionable way. When things are taking their ordinary course, it is hard to remember what matters. There are so many things you would never thing to tell anyone. And I believe they may be the things that mean the most to you, and that even your own child would have to know in order to know you well at all." At many points, he also writes that these are his son's "begats."

This book is part a dramatic story, part memoir (even if of a fictional character), part theology and part philosophy. Reading it the first time through, my reaction goes between feeling like I am reading a compilation of essays to being caught up in events being described. I feel like I am looking at a life lesson but that somehow I missed the lesson. I feel like I need to ponder over it and to perhaps re-read it to puzzle through John Ames' message. I want to know the other characters in a way other than through John Ames' eyes. Gilead leaves me thinking and with so many questions unanswered.

Why is a dying man investing his remaining time in documenting his life rather than living it? Why not spend the time with his wife and son, leaving his son with the memories of his father that are his rather than his father's writings about others? John Ames even comments on his own detachment, "This morning you came to me with a picture you had made that you wanted me to admire. I .... didn't look up right away. Your mother said, in the kindest, saddest voice, 'He doesn't hear you.' Not 'He didn't' but 'He doesn't.'" That statement is never explained. Why does John Ames not listen to his own son? What is the story behind his marriage - his second and to a woman considerable younger than he is?

A large part of the story has to do with John Ames' godson, Jack Boughton. He left Gilead under unfortunate circumstances and has now returned at least for a while. Slowly, the book does reveal why Jack Boughton left town. Slowly, you also see the friendship developing between Jack and John Ames' wife. Why does John Ames harbor such strong feelings towards Jack? The history, once revealed, alone does not seem to explain the intensity of the feelings. Also, if these writings are his son's legacy, why is Jack such a big part of them?

The Christian theology and references are abundant in this book. From the title Gilead to the idea of writing his son's "begats." From the varied Christian traditions represented to the discussions of the atheist Ludwig Feuerbach. This book definitely takes some work. I find myself rereading passages, doing research, and looking up references to further my understanding of the book for I clearly do not have the background to understand it. Is a more knowledgeable reader the target audience for this book? Is there a bigger philosophical lesson in the book tied to a deeper understanding of the references?

Gilead won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the 2005 National book Critics Circle Award. Since that time, Marilynne Robinson has written two companion books. Published in 2008, Home tells a concurred story, focusing on the Boughton family - Reverend Robert Boughton who is John Ames's best friend and Jack Boughton, who Ames' godson and the Robert's prodigal son returned home. Lila, published in 2014, picks up on the story of John Ames' much younger wife - her life before coming to Gilead and then her courtship and marriage to John Ames. I am looking forward to one day reading both companion books to see if they answer some of the question Gilead leaves unanswered.

I feel like I did not truly understand this book. Did I like it? Yes, I did for it leaves me thinking and I am engaged enough to want to understand.  Many unanswered questions remain, but the book feels complete. We hear only John Ames' perspective, but I am left caring about all of them and wanting to know the "why" behind their story and what happens to them? They may be fictional characters, but they leave a very real, lingering impact.

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

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Girl on the Train

Title:  The Girl on the Train
Author:  Paula Hawkins
Publication Information:  Riverhead Books. 2015. 336 pages.
ISBN:  1594633665 / 978-1594633669
Book Source:  I read this book based on its publicity and the cover.

Opening Sentence:  "She's buried beneath a silver birch tree, down towards the old train tracks, her grave marked with a cairn."

Favorite Quote:  "He never understood that it's possible to miss what you've never had, to mourn for it."

Rachel Watson is the girl on the train. Unable to have children. Recently divorced. Recently unemployed. With a drinking problem. With a tendency for alcoholic blackouts. With a fixation on stalking her ex-husband and his new wife. A somewhat pitiful sight, and a great, unreliable narrator!

Every day, Rachel takes the train into the city, pretending to go to work. Every evening, she takes the train back. Unfortunately, the train path goes by where her ex-husband Tom lives with his new wife Anna and their new baby. That certainly does not help her issues with alcohol or stalking.

In her rides, Rachel also fixates on a house down the street. She sees a house with a young couple, who she views as the golden couple. She gives them names - Jess and Jason - and envisions their fairy tale life. Of course, life is not a fairly tale.

One day, Megan, the woman in this golden couple, disappears. Rachel continues her misguided fairly tale and starts to imagine what might have happened and how devastated her husband might be. She also thinks she might have seen something that relates to Megan and may shed light on her disappearance. However, with her alcohol induced blackouts, she is not sure.

Clearly lacking in good judgement, Rachel gets involved. She reports her thoughts to the police and to Megan's husband. She is obviously not a reliable witness. In fact, the more the police research, the more holes they find in her story. The fact that Tom and Anna live on the street and accuse Rachel of stalking further complicates things.

Confused yet? That's pretty much how Rachel feels. The book twists and turns, showing us the events from Rachel, Anna, and Megan's perspectives. What do these three women have in common? Anything at all? Do their stories share a common link beyond the street they live on? What happened the night Megan disappeared? The first sentence of the book reveal what happened to her, but how and why? All these questions keep you reading.

The book really only has five main characters. Rachel is the drunk fixated on her ex-husband. Anna is the new wife, who "got" her husband through an adulterous affair and then moved right into the house Tom shared with Rachel. Megan has plenty of unpleasant secrets of her own, some of which lead to her disappearance. Tom is Rachel's ex-husband and Anna's husband; he is forever trying to placate both. Justin is Megan's husband, distraught at his wife's disappearance but with a few skeletons of his own in the closet. A supporting cast of stereotypes surrounds these main characters. I don't particularly like any of the them, but keep reading because, at the same time, I want to know what happens.

Many books recently have been compared to Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl; this is the first one for me that elicits the same reaction. The characters in both are certainly unlikable. The ending to this book does not have the surprise element of Gone Girl. By process of elimination, I did guess the correct guilty party, but it is a whole lot of fun to see how the book gets there.

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

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Chess not Checkers: Elevate Your Leadership Game

Title:  Chess not Checkers:  Elevate Your Leadership Game
Author:  Mark Miller
Publication Information:  Berrett-Koehler Publishers. 2015. 144 pages.
ISBN:  1626563942 / 978-1626563940

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

Opening Sentence:  "Leading has never been easy."

Favorite Quote:  "You're already paying for their hands - and with every pair of hands you hire, you get a free brain. They key to unlock that brain lies in the heart. When you get the head, the heart, and the hands, you've tapped a deep well of passion, creativity, and performance."

Mark Miller, co-author of The Secret: What Great Leaders Know and Do, uses the metaphor of chess and checkers to demonstrate the shift in leadership style needed to manage as an organization grows in size and complexity.

Chess is defined as a "game of strategic skill for two players, played on a checkered board." Checkers is a "game played by two players on a checkerboard." The players are the same. The board is the same. What differs is the pieces and the strategy. Checkers pieces are all the same with all playing a similar role. Chess pieces are more specialized, with individual strengths and weakness, working together to accomplish a goal.

So, claims Mark Miller, it goes with business. A new business is a little like checkers, quickly changing with every player fulfilling every role as needed. As the organization expands, however, roles specialize as with chess pieces, and a leader must develop the organization and the people with a vision of the future and a way to maximize individual strengths. Leaders who do not take that strategic leap flounder. Playing chess when checkers is called for can lead to failure.

The case study in this book is Blake Brown, who gets the opportunity to step in as the CEO of a company with about fifty employees. The company has sales of several million dollars, but the sales are stagnant. He finds an organizational dynamic that is not working, but he cannot quite determine the changes necessary. He finds a mentor in a retired CEO, who, through several meetings, leads him through the idea of identifying when the "game" has changed, identifying and developing organizational leaders, ensuring that organizational roles match individual strengths, ensuring a common understanding of values and goals, engaging the entire organization in the plans and strategies, and focusing on effective execution.

These ideas are reinforced several times even in the short span of the book. Each meeting between Blake and his mentor focuses on one main idea. After each meeting, Blake takes the idea back to his organization. The management team discusses the idea, allowing the key points to be reiterated. Blake brings results back to his mentor, again allowing the key ideas to be reinforced again. The printing of the book, through font sizes and text boxes, clearly sets apart the main themes. Thus, a reader can easily skim through and find the lessons of the book or read the story that goes with it.

The case study in the book is perhaps a simplified view of what is no doubt a very complex situation. John, the staff member who is not ready for change, is vehement in his opinions to the point of getting himself fired. Suzy, the staff member who emerges as a leader, does so almost instantly and completely. The buy in from the existing management team comes quickly as well. However, the simplification of the example does not mitigate the strength of the idea. As with The Secret, the ideas of this book are not new, but the book packages them into a clear vision. It can be read in one sitting and easily understood. The metaphor itself is simple and powerful.

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

Friday, April 10, 2015

The Rosie Effect

Title:  The Rosie Effect
Author:  Graeme Simsion
Publication Information:  Simon & Schuster. 2014. 352 pages.
ISBN:  1476767319 / 978-1476767314

Book Source:  I read this book as it is the sequel to The Rosie Project.

Opening Sentence:  "Orange juice was not scheduled for Fridays."

Favorite Quote:  "... I had concluded that being myself, with all my intrinsic flaws, was more important than having the thing I wanted most."

The Rosie Effect is a sequel to The Rosie Project. The book really should be read as a sequel for it assumes knowledge and understanding of the characters and events of the first book. The first book introduced Don Tillman, a professor of genetics, whose need for order and whose logic and routine based approach to life display many of the characteristics of someone with Aspergers. Yet, he does not see it in himself.

The first book was all about Don's quest to find a mate. He starts with his methodical approach. Then enters Rosie, who is nothing like his list of characteristics. However, Rosie reaches beyond his logic, and the two get married.

At the beginning of this second book, Don and Rosie have moved to New York City. Rosie is studying at Columbia University, and Don continues his teaching and research. As the stork on the cover of the book may imply, a baby enters into the picture. Rosie is pregnant, and Don feels unready and unprepared.

So, he undertakes research on how to be a father - research that allows him to approach this new life change in his own organized, logic-based manner. As has happened many times in Don's life, people misinterpret his "research." Unfortunately, this time, it lands him in trouble with the law and dealing with a social worker, who seems set against him.

This book does not have all the joy and humor that the first book did. It deals with a more serious side of life. In The Rosie Project, I find myself laughing at some of the situations and cheering for both Don and Rosie. In this book, I still cheer for Don, but, more than that, I feel a sadness for Don. For a lot of reasons.

First, it's the little things like his description of having to get used to living with another person. He creates himself an office in the spare bathroom, for he can be there alone and undisturbed. Perhaps, that is meant to conjure a humorous image, but I would hope that a life partner would be more understanding.

Second, in the first book, Rosie is a main character and a likable one. In this one, she seems somewhat absent for a lot of the time, and somewhat unlikable for the rest. She gets pregnant, without really having agreement from Don about having a child. Then, she fails to understand his concerns. She is so caught up in the pregnancy and her own work that she seems to forget about Don and about compromise in a relationship.

Third, Don is ill prepared for his role as a father. Yet, when he sets out to educate himself, he is faced with people who further want to sabotage his efforts. It seems especially odd that a trained social worker does not recognize Don's needs and hinders rather than helps his efforts.

I am still puzzled by the turn the story took. Warranted, this book is a first person narrative in Don's voice. Perhaps, that might explain his view of the lack of understanding displayed by other people. However, The Rosie Project has the same narrative voice and felt so joyful. Perhaps, that is the nature of the relationship. The first book was about the first rush of romance with its rose-colored glasses; this book is about life in a relationship, with its ups and downs and with its dose of reality. Either way, this one's a little disappointing after the first.

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

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Until You're Mine

Title:  Until You're Mine
Author:  Samantha Hayes
Publication Information:  Crown. 2014. 368 pages.
ISBN:  0804136890 / 978-0804136891

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.

Opening Sentence:  "I've always wanted a baby, even when I was little and didn't know where they came from."

Favorite Quote:  "She ... found herself thinking of everything else she loved about him .... Ridiculous, tiny things that, when added together, were bigger than life itself."

The premise of this book is described as how far would someone go to have a baby. Claudia is expecting to bring her first baby home any day now. Zoe is her new nanny, and she has a pregnancy kit in her bag. Someone is out killing pregnant women, in a particularly vicious way that looks like an at home Cesarean section! The women and the babies die. Lorraine is one of the detectives investigating the murders.

These are the three women on whom this book centers. We alternately see the story from their perspectives. Claudia's increasing discomfort with Zoe. Zoe's secrets. Lorraine's investigation which leads back to Claudia and Zoe.

The first two chapters introduce the Morgan family. They are apparently independently wealthy; they live in a large house in an affluent neighborhood and are looking to hire a live in nanny for twin boys and a new baby on the way. James is a Navy man, gone for months at a time. He puts his children to bed "drunkenly singing Aerosmith's Janie's Got a Gun" but putting the names of his four year old boys' into the lyrics. Claudia is a social worker, who wants it all - family, baby, yoga classes, and a demanding career as a social worker. She is mothering her new husband's twins, but is looking forward to being "a complete family" and "a real mother" when her baby arrives. Zoe comes in to interview for the nanny position. She tries way too hard to make a good impression, not even reacting to the twins throwing things at her. Neither James nor Claudia make any real effort to discipline the boys.

So, unfortunately, within the first few pages, the book is filled with entitled, self-indulgent, unlikable characters (that's the adults, not the four year old boys!). That impression really does not improve as the book progresses. After that, the book just drags for me, because I don't really care what happens to them.

Not caring is just as well perhaps, because part of the story line ends up in a surprise twist. Surprise twists can be the making of a suspense novel; some make you go through the entire book again to see if a reader could see it coming. This one is completely out of left field with no real tie in to the rest of the book. It's so far out as to the point of being somewhat irrelevant to the rest of the story. It is also unrealistic in that the character involved reveals nothing throughout the book, even though parts of the story are told in her first person voice. Do even her internal thoughts keep secrets?

Also irrelevant to the book is the entire plot line about Lorraine and her family issues. She is the police officer investigating the murders. Her husband Adam is the lead on the case. They are having marital issues and issues with their children. Other than the fact that the two are working on the investigations, their story has no real tie in to the rest of the book. It seems to add pages but no substance to the main plot. I find myself skipping the sections related to her problems.

The main plot line of a woman's need to be a mother and the extreme measures she will take to achieve that end was a promising premise. The book would have been much stronger sticking to that main story and exploring the psychology of that character. That would have been a totally different book. This one unfortunately is just not the book for me.

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

Monday, April 6, 2015

Sisters of Heart and Snow

Title:  Sisters of Heart and Snow
Author:  Margaret Dilloway
Publication Information:  G.P. Putnam's Sons. 2015. 400 pages.
ISBN:  0399170804 / 978-0399170805

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

Opening Sentence:  "Tomoe held the round bronze mirror with steady hands, fighting her nervous pulse."

Favorite Quote:  "We all need someone with whom we can be our most core selves. Unhidden and honest. When you hide parts of yourself from other people, they can't fully know and love you, nor you them. You construct a false version of yourself. Then your true self remains unknown. Isolated. You become a stranger."

Present day San Diego - recognizable and familiar. Twelfth century Japan - the world of the samurai. What, might you ask, do these times and places have in common? Nothing at all in so many ways. Yet, human nature and people are the same, with our need for love, understanding, and acceptance. The complexity of human relationships is what this book explores in this unique twist on a story about sisters.

Rachel is middle aged, with a loving husband and two children. She holds the power of attorney for her mother, Hiraki, who suffers from dementia and is in a nursing home. Rachel has been estranged from her father, Killian, since he threw her out of the house when she was sixteen. The two are locked in battle over control of her mother's care. Due to the circumstances, Rachel is also estranged from Drew, her younger sister.

In a lucid moment, Hiraki asks Rachel to get a book from her sewing room at Killian's home. Rachel calls on Drew to help. The book turns out to be the story of the legendary onna bugeisha or female samurai, Tomoe Gozen. For Rachel and Drew, the story of Tomoe and her "sister of heart" Yamabuki becomes a fable showing them the way back to each other and the strength to move forward in their lives. Tomoe Gozen and Yamabuki's story is a book within this book about Rachel and Drew.

Neither narrative delves into the "why" behind what many characters do. Why is Killian so cruel? Why did Hiraki spend her whole life catering to Killian but find the strength to go against his wishes and reconnect with her daughter? Why is Yamabuki, a wife, so accepting of Tomoe Gozen, who is the concubine of her husband? Why was Tomoe Gozen's father so willing to train her in the skills of the samurai? Why does Tomoe Gozen, so strong in so many ways, continue to follow a man who she knows is heading down a path of destruction?

These answers are not forthcoming in the book. More than the individual characters, this book becomes about the relationships. It is the relationships not the individual characters that give this book its depth. The common focal point becomes love. Hiraki's love for her daughters pierces her dementia for one lucid moment to bring the courage of Tomoe Gozen to Rachel and Drew.  Rachel's love for her daughter Quincy helps steer her through difficult choices. Although rivals, Tomoe Gozen and Yamabuki find a sisterly love that helps them survive a desolate life and immeasurable losses. Although estranged for years, Rachel and Drew rediscover their need and their love for each other. "Perhaps that was the mark of a sister ... You could be angry, but still be there for one another when needed."

The book leaves an interesting idea to contemplate. Tomoe is the warrior; she leads men into battle and weilds a weapon with strength and agility. Yamabuki is initially depicted as fragile, docile and incapable of dealing with the harsh life she is to live. Tomoe is the fighter, and Yamabuki, the poet. Tomoe sees the danger, and Yamabuki, the beauty. Rachel and Drew draw the comparison to themselves, each thinking the other the strong one. Yet, ultimately, the book shows that the apparently strong have weaknesses, and the seemingly weak can display immense strength. As they discover, "there are times when being strong means you must accept your weakness."

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

Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Mapmaker's Children

Title:  The Mapmaker's Children
Author:  Sarah McCoy
Publication Information:  Crown. 2015. 320 pages.
ISBN:  0385348908 / 978-0385348904

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

Opening Sentence:  "The old House on Apple Hill Lane shuddered against the weighty snow that burdened its pitch."

Favorite Quote:  "We can't force life to do what we want when we want it. We can't change yesterday or control tomorrow. We can only live today as best as we can. And it just might turn out better than expected."

The Mapmaker's Children follows two women - Sarah Brown in the 1850s and Eden Anderson in 2014. Sarah's story is personal and global - the story of slavery, abolition and the time leading up to the Civil War in the United States. Eden's story is about personal sorrow, a house, and a doll.

The "mapmaker" is historical figure Sarah Brown, daughter of abolitionist John Brown. John Brown not only believed in abolition of slavery, but also that armed insurrection was the way to accomplish his goal. His unsuccessful raid on Harper's Ferry is said to be a main trigger that led to the Civil War. Unfortunately, that raid also led to his capture and the death of several family members. Prior to that fateful raid, John Brown was an active participant in the Underground Railroad. Sarah Brown became involved because of her artistic skills. She was able to draw maps in pictures - on scraps of paper and on objects hidden in plain sight - for the runaways slaves to follow. Even after the Harper's Ferry raid, Sarah vowed to continue the work.

Eden Anderson and her husband Jack move into an old house in New Charlestown, in 2010. Eden in drowning in the sorrow that they are unable to conceive a child. The house is a large one bought in anticipation of a growing family; it now seems to mock her. One day, she discovers the head of doll in a cellar. At first, it seems an additional jab at her lack of children. However, gradually, she is befriended by a neighbor's child, and drawn out of her sorrow and self-pity into a world of new friendships and of new mysteries as to the history of the doll and of her house.

The two main characters - Sarah and Eden - seem associated by only a thread. In some ways, their stories are similar; their inability to bear children impacts the course of their lives entirely. Many of their relationships become hinged on that fact. In other ways, their stories could not be more different. Sarah loses so much in her early life; she lives in a violent, turbulent times. Her battle is one of ideals and of changing the world. Eden, however, is leading a comfortable, white collar life. She and her husband are able to afford a lovely home; she is able to leave a career and settle into an an affluent neighborhood. Her activities consist of puppies, bookstores, neighbors, and the project to research the history of her home. The stories do not compare.

As such, the book is sometimes frustrating to read. Sarah's story should be the more compelling of the two; it is certainly the more interesting of the two, all the more so for being a fictionalized account of an actual historical figure. Yet, it sometimes reads like a detached description of the time and place. A considerable part of Sarah's story is told through letters; as such, events and people are talked about in a somewhat dispassionate way. The emotions, perhaps due to the time and due to the relationships, seem a distant second and often missing from the letters. Eden's story is told with a focus on the emotions - the way Cricket and Cleo find their way into Eden's heart, Eden's love for her brother, and Eden's relationship with Jack. Her story seems more "alive" than Sarah's, but I am left with the feeling that it should be the other way around. I am left wanting to know more about Sarah and what she felt.

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

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Orhan's Inheritance

Title:  Orhan's Inheritance
Author:  Aline Ohanesian
Publication Information:  Algonquin Books. 2015. 352 pages.
ISBN:  1616203749 / 978-1616203740

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

Opening Sentence:  "They found him inside one of the seventeen cauldrons in the courtyard, steeping in an indigo dye two shades darker than the summer sky."

Favorite Quote:  "We are not what is done to us."

Orhan is Turkish. He returns home to his small ancestral village upon his grandfather's death. His grandfather, going against tradition, passes over his own son in his will. He leaves his son only an apartment, bequeathing his business to Orhan and their ancestral village home to a woman Seda, who lives in the United States and who Orhan has never heard of. Orhan is tasked with figuring out who the woman is, why his grandfather might have left her the house, and if he can get it back for his family.

His journey leads him to the United States and to his own family's past. Seda is an elderly Armenian woman living in a nursing home in San Francisco. The book weaves between the 1990s and the World War I era as Seda recalls her story. Her story completely change Orhan and who he thought he was and who he believes his grandfather was. His inheritance turns out to be much more than the family home and business.

Several things are clear in this book. War claims victims on all sides. The history we learn depends on who is relating the history. An appeal to and a questioning of God comes in times of distress no matter what your religion.

War claims victims on all sides. Lucine and Kemal are young during the War. They are friends, perhaps more. Yet, they are on opposite sides of the war. During World War I, the Turkish government turns against its own Armenian citizens, decimating the Armenian community. Lucine is from an established Armenian family.  She cannot comprehend how the place that is her home and the people who are her neighbors now seek to destroy her family. The brutality that she and her family experience is beyond words. Kemal, on the other hand, is Turkish and has been taught about the "inferiority" of the Armenians and the need for protecting Turkey from "outsiders". He follows his upbringing into service as a Turkish soldier, but does not really understand the war he fights. Is he a guilty aggressor, blindly going into battle and not questioning or is he a young victim of the decision makers? "Nothing about this war makes sense."

The history we learn depends on who is relating the history. Decades after the war, Orhan and Ani meet. He is Turkish, and she is Armenian. Their different views of history reflect what they have been taught. One believes the government's version; the other lives through the memories of genocide. Orhan's views start to change only when he learns Seda's reality. "All of life ... is a story within a story; how we choose to listen and which words we choose to speak makes all the difference."

An appeal to and a questioning of God comes in times of distress no matter what your religion. Throughout the book, almost every character calls upon God. Some reject Him for how could a God allow such atrocities to happen. Some still believe but also believe that God has deserted them. Some don't believe, but recognize His blessings. Again and again, even in denying God's existence, they all call upon God.

The parts of this book that are set during the war in Turkey show the story in all its sadness and devastation. The author's masterful descriptions place the reader in the horrific destruction Seda survived. At the same time, the author manages to capture war from both sides, showing the different perspectives in how neighbor turned against neighbor and how sometimes help came in the most unexpected places. The characters - Kemal, Lucine, Aunt Fatma, and others - come alive as does a vivid, horrifying picture of what was done to the Armenians.

The parts of the book, especially some of the conversations, set in the 1990s tell the story of the war. Seda lives through the horror; her niece Ani needs to retell it to ensure that it is remembered. The descriptions of what Seda - indeed all of the them - endure touch the heart and boggle the mind. She survives through it and needs no reminders. Seda's desire is to remain in the present and keep the memories at bay, while Ani needs to create a constant reminder for the world. Understandable, but in reading the book, Ani's statements seem almost superfluous. Seda's story does not need the embellishment of an explicit explanation. The images alone are enough. Yes, we need the next generations and all those who come after to remember. However, we do not need their explanations to give credence or weight to what happened. "All the words in every human language on earth would not be enough to describe what happened."

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