Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Ana of California

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A grown-up reimagining of L. M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables

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Title:  Ana of California
Author:  Andi Teran
Publication Information:  Penguin Group. 2015. 368 pages.
ISBN:  0143126490 / 978-0143126492

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

Opening Sentence:  "She was out of beginnings, this she knew."

Favorite Quote:  "We live with the scars though, don't we? ... But they show we lived in the moment and have survived past it."

"A modern retelling of Anne of Green Gables." I was enticed by that description. I read the entire L. M. Montgomery series as a child and then again as an adult. It's one of the childhood series that is still on my shelf today. The spunky Anne Shirley. The beautiful Prince Edward Island setting. The group of eccentric small town characters. The innocence of childhood despite the hardships suffered. I love the original L. M. Montgomery book!

As excited as I was to read this book, I was also apprehensive. This retelling attempts to fill some mighty big shoes. I was not sure if I was prepared to be delighted once again or disappointed. Then, I finally realized that it is not a fair comparison. Anne of Green Gables is the story of a child written for children. Ana of California is not; this book is more for the young adult and adult audience. The themes are more adult, and the story is darker. Reading it in constant comparison to the original is not fair. No way can Ana capture the sweet charm of Anne Shirley.

I stopped comparing and settled in to enjoy what is a wonderful coming of age story all on its own. Although I find myself smiling over the memories triggered by some of the similarities between the books, you don't have to be familiar with the original to enjoy this story. Ana is an engaging character, and this story well-told.

Ana's life seems to be defined by the following statement: "Some things are out of our control, mija, especially where we came from and what we left behind. But we can choose how we react and how we move forward." Born into the streets of East Los Angeles, Ana loses her parents and grandmother to the violence of those streets. She bounces around from foster home to foster home, never finding a permanent home or a family to call her own. She comes to the Garber farm as a last chance. In brother and sister Emmett and Abbie Garber, Ana hopes to find a family or at least a final foster home before her emancipation from the foster care system.

With Ana comes all the emotions and fears of her childhood. Will she find a home? Will any mistake send Ana packing back to Los Angeles? Can she risk friendship? Can she risk believing that this may be home? Her fears and insecurity come through in her art and in her interactions with all those around her. All these things have me believing in, cheering for, and wanting to protect Ana.

In this small farm town community in Northern California, Ana finds a host of characters, each with their story. Emmett and the loss of his wife. Abbie and the secrets of her rebellious past. Manny and the other migrant farm workers. Cole Brennan, the Brennan family and their relationship with the Garbers. Rye and the prejudice she faces. Will and his dream for his restaurant.

These many stories form the undercurrent to Ana's story. None of them develop enough to compete with the main story, but they do clearly convey a point. Everyone - including Ana - has a past and a story. Family - the one we are born with or the one we make - is about all the stories together and is about loving each other sometimes in spite of those stories.

While Anne of Green Gables will always have a place on my shelf as a childhood favorite, Ana of California also gets a place on my shelf, for an endearing main character and an engaging story.

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

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Customer Mania: It's Never Too Late to Build a Customer-Focused Company

Title:  Customer Mania:  It's Never Too Late to Build a Customer-Focused Company
Author:  Ken Blanchard, Jim Ballard, Fred Finch
Publication Information:  Free Press. 2004. 208 pages.
ISBN:  0743270282 / 978-0743270281

Book Source:  I read this book based on an interest in Mr. Blanchard's work.

Opening Sentence:  "I have the greatest job in the world"

Favorite Quote:  "If the organization has been built the right way, it will be the Provider of Choice, Employer of Choice, and Investment of Choice."

Customer Mania presents a framework for creating an organizational environment with a customer focus. Unlike some of Mr. Blanchard's other work, this book does not rely on a parable to convey its point. It uses an actual case study - Yum! Brands - the parent company that owns Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and KFC.

"The most powerful way to produce desired change in an organization is to impact its culture." The case study of Yum! Brands embodies this principle. The three brands have their own unique identity; however, a unified culture permeates all three.

As the cover copy of the book states, building a customer-focused organization entails four steps:

  • Identifying the correct goal or target
  • Treating customers right
  • Treating employees right
  • Building and growing leaders.

The book is set up as a classic case study. The first section presents an introduction and history of Yum! Brands. The next few sections focus on each of the steps in the framework above. Each section consists of three main parts - a benchmark of performance or "Blanchard's Dream;" a description of Yum! Brand's implementation of that step; and a brief scorecard rating Yum! Brand's performance against the benchmark. The final part of the book presents conclusions and future steps.

As with Mr. Blanchard's other books, this book is neatly organized and easy to read.The key points are highlighted using formatting techniques such as fonts, texts boxes, graphics, and lists. A reader can slowly read every details or peruse through quickly and still get the main points of the book.

The one part I wish was further developed is the scorecard component of each section. "Blanchard's Dream" for each step in the process is explained over several pages with principles and examples. The Yum! Brands implementation is also explained over several pages. The scorecard gives Yum! Brands a score out of 10 with no more than a page of explanation, mostly only a paragraph. The implementation seems to focus on highlights not the struggles of this process; the scorecard recognizes some of the challenges but barely touches on them. Sometimes, the struggles and challenges are where the learning occurs. A greater explanation of challenges and how they were overcome or how they could be overcome would be a beneficial tool.

The most interesting part of the book for me is the fact that almost a third focuses on the step - Treat your employees right. As in the book Raving Fans, the point is re-iterated over and over that customer service is based on recruiting, hiring, training, growing, and recognizing a work force.  Yum! Brands has a list of "founding truths" (i.e., principles, philosophy). The first reads "People Capability First ... satisfied customers and profitability follow." So often, managers and leaders focus on external results, forgetting that is the internal processes that lead to those results - good and bad.

The book was written in 2004. As such, the company specifics may be dated, but the principles are not. A quick browse of the Yum! Brand website still reveals its focus on its Yum! Dynasty model and its "recognition culture" - cultural models explained in this book. The specifics may have changed, but the key components of their customer mania philosophy as found in this book remain vital and viable even today.

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

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Man in the Monster

Title:  The Man in the Monster
Author:  Martha Elliott
Publication Information:  Penguin Press. 2015. 336 pages.
ISBN:  159420490X / 978-1594204906

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

Opening Sentence:  "No one in her right mind invites a serial killer into her life."

Favorite Quote:  "To better understand the darkness, we have to see it clearly."

Dzung Ngoc Tu. Age 25. Murdered May 12, 1981.
Tammy Williams. Age 17. Murdered January 5, 1982.
Paula Perrera. Age 16. Murdered March 1, 1982.
Debra Smith Taylor. Age 23. Murdered June 15, 1982.
Robin Dawn Stavinsky. Age 19. Murdered October 23, 1983.
April Brunais. Age 14. Murdered April 22, 1984.
Leslie Shelley. Age 14. Murdered April 22, 1984.
Wendy Baribeault. Age 17. Murdered June 13, 1984.

These were the victims. Average age - only about 18. The criminal - Michel Bruce Ross. Serial rapist. Serial killer. Age 55. Executed May 13, 2005 for his crimes - the first execution to take place in New England since 1960.

This is the horrific subject of this book. Why, you might ask, would I or anyone read such a book? The author at one point says, "To better understand the darkness, we have to see it clearly." This is why. I expected to read some description, perhaps some neuroscience, perhaps some psychology, perhaps some insight into why. Why would a human being commit such horrible crimes? Maybe, just maybe, understanding why may one day prevent such crimes from occurring.

Unfortunately, that is not what the book delivers. The book becomes about the stated friendship between author - long-time, experienced journalist Martha Elliot - and Michael Ross - a relationship that lasted from their first phone conversation to his eventual execution about a decade later. This book also becomes about Ross's prosecution and about Martha Elliot's decided views against the death penalty.

The bias is clear throughout the book. The cover copy of the book suggests a look inside a monster and what motivates and compels him to commit such abominable crimes. However, throughout the book, the author draws the distinction between the "monster" who committed the crimes and the man that Ross was. The distinction is a fictitious one. Even if you ascribe his crimes to mental illness, he is still Michael Ross, serial rapist and killer - one man.

The bias is also clear in the descriptions of the due process Ross received. Descriptions such as:

  • "Michael's first trial was a travesty"
  • "the victim of a sinister and  unpredictable prosecutor"
  • "deliberately distorted evidence"
  • "staff at ... the maximum security prison ... was cold and unsympathetic"
  • "guards at Northern were intimidating and surly"

A focus on the processing of his case becomes a condemnation of the system, not an insight into his mindset and not "an intimate portrait of a serial killer" as the title suggests. Mind you, Ross was convicted at his first trial and at a second trial. Twenty four people - two independent juries - judged him guilty.

Oddly, for a book asking readers to look at the man beyond the crimes, the first half of the book spends a lot of time describing the details of the crimes themselves - each and every one of these eight victims as well as others who survived. Yes, there were others! Why include such details as to how exactly he raped and murdered? Why not focus on more on why and develop that understanding? The details serve only to highlight his monstrous deeds.

The most heartbreaking part of the book is the interviews with some of the victims' families. Only a few people agreed to speak with the author, among them Leslie Shelley's family. Their words bring into greater focus the fact that Ross not only took the lives of these young women but destroyed the lives of their families. Again, the descriptions further reinforce the horror of his crimes rather than an understanding of the workings of his mind.

The story of Michael Ross leaves me not with a greater understanding of how a man becomes a serial killer but with a fear - a fear of anyone encountering him or anyone like him in the dark, in a secluded place, anywhere.

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

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Library at Mount Char

Title:  The Library at Mount Char
Author:  Scott Hawkins
Publication Information:  Crown. 2015. 400 pages.
ISBN:  0553418602 / 978-0553418606

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

Opening Sentence:  "Carolyn, blood-drenched and barefoot, walked alone down the two-lane stretch of blacktop that the Americans called Highway 78."

Favorite Quote:  "No real thing can be so perfect as memory."

This Library and these librarians are like no other I have ever met, seen, or even read about. The inside cover of this book reads:

A missing God.
A library with the secrets to the universe
A woman too busy to notice her heart slipping away.

Intriguing to say the least. The Library exists along the nondescript Garrison Oaks subdivision along the nondescript highway 78 as the "Americans" call it. The Library is anything but ordinary and anything but nondescript. It has been home to twelve orphans for years; their parents died and Father "adopted" them. They live a life of learning, control, violence, and sometimes friendship and love. Each has their area of expertise - their catalog of learning - languages, war, healing, the dead, the animals, and more. Each is an expert in their respective area, but all are forbidden to learn from another catalog.

Something is amiss. Father is missing, and the Library lies at the center of a force field that prevents the twelve for even venturing close. What happened to Father? Did one of his enemies attack? Did a friend? Is He merely toying with his disciples? If Father is truly no more, then what happens next? Who will take the place He has held for centuries upon centuries? Who will control the Library?

The story centers around Carolyn, whose catalog is languages. In this bizarre world, I can't decide how I feel about her. Like her? Dislike her? Feel sorry for her? Be afraid of her? Admire her? Be horrified? During the course of the book, I have all these reactions and more. Regardless of the reaction at any given point, however, I want to understand what makes her tick and I want to know what happens to her.

This book sets up this entire world of Librarians, the dead, the normal Americans, the sentinel dogs, the lions and the tiger (oh my!), and, of course, Father himself. The book twists and turns this world like a kaleidoscope all the way until the very last page. Every time I thought I had it figured out, it shifts. I find myself guessing until the very end. The ending itself is satisfying because of course, that's what the ending has to be. It makes sense and leaves the inkling of a sequel perhaps.

Be warned, however. This book is not for everyone. It contains graphic descriptions of violence - blood and guts pouring out and being used as adornment by the killers, people being cooked alive, and the dead coming back to life.  The language of the book is also graphic - a lot of cursing. In fact, some bookstores are including this book under "horror." This is definitely normally not my kind of book. However, the bizarre world set up and the gripping story line keeps me reading. I cringe and hurry over the descriptions and keep reading. The nature and extent of the violence and the language keeps this from being a five star book for me.

The book has some sweet and tender moments also. My favorite is the idea of a "coal heart" - the special something that "she will warm herself on .... when there is nothing else, and be sustained." A close second is the love and sacrifice of a parent for a child. Mind you, the parent and child in this book are a pair of lions, but the emotions portrayed are very human ones.

Much as this is completely not the type of book I read, I couldn't stop reading and couldn't stop guessing what would come next. Considering that this is Scott Hawkins' debut novel, I can't wait to see what he comes up with next.

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

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Summer Secrets

Title:  Summer Secrets
Author:  Jane Green
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Press. 2015. 320 pages.
ISBN:  125004734X / 978-1250047342

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:  "Most of the time, when I'm facing an evening on my own, I am absolutely fine."

Favorite Quote:  "Life is where you look."

The word "summer" in the title, the lovely blue color, and flowers on the cover conjure up an image of love, warmth, and a sweet story. The word "secrets" and the broken stem of the flower conjure something deeper and darker.

The first half of the book creates the character of Cat Coombs. It depicts the life of an alcoholic and the devastating impact alcoholism has on the individual and on those around them. Lost jobs, failed marriages, broken relationships, despair. Thankfully, this is not something I have experienced personally. I can't attest to the accuracy of the depiction; it does, however, make for sad reading.

Cat's journey to sobriety can be seen in her thoughts - her internal dialogue throughout the book:
  • "I worry my chameleon tendencies display a lack of sense of self."
  • "Part of romanticizing my life includes the false assumption that if I look right, I will be right."
  • "I am embarrassed when I realize I have no idea what normal is."
  • "At what point will I trust my own voice?"
  • "How easily this could have been me. This was me. For years."
The second half of the book hinges upon this journey. It invokes the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. In particular, the story stems from Steps 8 and 9. Step 8 asks the individual to “make a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.” Step 9 directs the individual to "make direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others."

For Cat, this list of people includes her mother, her ex-husband, her daughter, and her sisters. One bad decision made in a fog of alcohol a long time ago cost Cat a relationship with her sisters. Now, she seeks to make amends and reconnect.

This part of the story becomes much more predictable and veers aways from the central focus on alcoholism. It introduces some filler characters, funny but unnecessary to the story. The main characters don't develop much depth either; they seem to exist only in relationship to their role in Cat's life. Cat's mother's reveals the secret of Cat's childhood and then assumes the supportive role of a mother. Cat's ex-husband, a recovering alcoholic himself, behaves predictably, going between loving Cat and being angry at her behavior. Cat's daughter seems to have a loving relationship with her mother and seems to bear no scars from the years of Cat's alcoholism. The only aspect of Cat's sisters readers learn about are their reactions and feelings towards Cat. Moving back and forth between 1998 and 2014, the book comes together into a cliche ending.

Jane Green has been long on my "to read" list. The appealing covers of her books always draw me in. I am glad that I finally read her work. In many ways, this book reminds me of Danielle Steel's books. The beautiful London and Nantucket settings certainly add to that comparison. Both give a light look at some serious issues. Both have characters that convey the point of the story without becoming fully developed. In both, things have a tendency to work out for a neat ending. At the end of it all, both provide an easy summer beach read that sometimes hints at a deeper message.

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

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Rituals of Dinner

Title:  The Rituals of Dinner
Author:  Margaret Visser
Publication Information:  Open Road Integrated Media (reprint). 1991 (original). 432 pages.
ISBN:  0802111165 / 978-1504011693

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

Opening Sentence:  "Table manners are as old as human society itself, the reason being that no human society can exist without them."

Favorite Quote:  "Table manners are social agreements; they are devised precisely because violence could so easily erupt at dinner. Eating is aggressive by nature, and the implements required for it could quickly become weapons; table manners are, most basically, a system of taboos designed to ensure that violence remains out of the question."

Margaret Visser begins this book with cannibalism and ends with a discussion of rudeness. In between, she packs in volumes of information on "the origins, evolution, eccentricities, and meaning of table manners." The book is an anthropological study of how we eat.

The introduction does a great job of introducing the structure of the book:
  • Basic principles of eating that seem to exist the world over
  • How children are taught to eat
  • Process through a dinner party from invitation through execution
  • Process of eating itself including aspects such as hygiene, tableware, and service
  • Etiquette and definition of rudeness during dinner
Interestingly, the one thing about dinner this book does not address is what we eat. This book is all about the how. Also, interestingly, the one thing about eating together this book does not address is the emotional implications. This book remains focused on the how; for example, it address how a child may learn to eat a food but not how as an adult, the food may conjure up vivid childhood memories.

This book is strictly fact driven with each section including example after example from both modern and ancient civilizations of the rituals, customs, and traditions of how we eat. For example, why did cannibalism exist and why is now a rarity? How does what we learn as children about "appropriate" behavior often carry throughout our lives? Did you know that the world invite perhaps originates in two Sanskrit words meaning "towards pleasant" or perhaps originates from the Latin word meaning "unwilling"? (For some dinner parties, both may apply, right?) Did you know that anthropologists have identified 132 main ways of sitting? Did you know that forks became prevalent first in Italy and Spain? Did you know that almost every country in Europe has its own way of placing silverware on a plate to indicate that the diner has finished eating?

The book is quite an extensive compilation. The lengthy references and bibliography at the end point to the depth of research conducted to compile this book. The best and the worst aspect of the book is that it is full of trivia - a lot of trivia. From culture to culture. From tradition to tradition. The individual items about why we behave in a certain manner and why certain rituals exist are fascinating, but put together, it makes for slow reading.

Perhaps, reading the book end to end is the not correct approach. I need time to absorb the information as it is read in small bits. Reading the book in bits also allows better understanding of the themes being developed rather than focusing on example after example and perhaps "missing the forest for the trees."

The breadth and depth of information covered also indicates that this is not the book for a reader with a casual interest in the topic. The author pulls elements from anthropology, history, sociology, and psychology to draw comparisons and conclusions. This academic approach has led to the book being used in college curricula.

Table manner and rituals are a language that convey our culture and our upbringing. This book is a great reference source for anyone looking to study the topic. If you have a general interest in the topic, you may find yourself skimming the book or looking for a different one. Should you choose to read it, you will never sit down to dinner quite the same way again.

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

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Raving Fans: A Revolutionary Approach to Customer Service

Title:  Raving Fans:  A Revolutionary Approach to Customer Service
Author:  Ken Blanchard and Sheldon Bowles
Publication Information:  William Morrow. 1993. 137 pages.
ISBN:  0688123163 / 978-0688123161

Book Source:  I read this book based on a recommendation and because I enjoy Mr. Blanchard's work.

Opening Sentence:  "Panic."

Favorite Quote:  "What we have are systems. Not rules. Rules create robots. Not systems. Systems are predetermined ways to achieve a result. The emphasis has to be on achieving the result, not the system for the system's sake ... The purpose of systems is to create consistency, not create robots ... Systems give you a floor, not a ceiling."

How do you develop loyal customers and how do you turn them into "raving fans"? That is the question addressed by this little book. Like many of Ken Blanchard's books, this book uses a parable to simplify and present a logical business approach.

The book tackles one business issue - that of customer service and customer reviews. The case study in the book is an area manager whose job depends on turning around his area's customer satisfaction. Diverse examples are used to illustrate the different parts of the process:
  • Harley's department store
  • Sally's market (a grocery store)
  • Bill's manufacturing plant
  • Andrew's station (a gas and service station)
The ideas of the book present a clear set of questions a business must address to create a customer service plan:
  • Who do you want your customers to be? Decide what you want.
  • What is your vision of perfect service for your customers?
  • Who is your actual customer - the direct person you deal with or someone down the line?
  • What do your customers actually want?
  • Have you asked them?
  • Have you heard both what they say and what they don't say?
  • Do you deliver what your customers want plus a bit more?
  • Internally, are your rewards and promotions tied to this paradigm of service?
Your specific action plan depends on the answers to these questions. The most interesting aspect of this philosophy is that actual customer service is only one of the final steps in the process. The bulk of the process is an internal process - starting with your own goals. A business must define itself first before it can define who its customers are. Another other key aspect often forgotten is that it is important to listen to what customers say and don't say.  A lack of customer response does not imply that all is well; it may in fact imply the opposite. It may indicate customer apathy or such a level of customer disappointment that they have no interest in providing input.

Even though the ideas are cohesive and valuable, this book has less of an impact than some of Ken Blanchard's other books for a few reasons:
  • The area manager's mentor in this book is a golf-loving fairy godmother. Yes, a fairy godmother. The cutesy approach becomes a big part of what is a very short book and sometimes gets in the way of the message of the book.
  • The businesses used to illustrate the process are diverse but stylized. Perhaps, that is a carryover effect of the "fairy godmother" approach, but the examples do not provide enough details to ground them in reality.
  • The book also does not provide a tie in to profitability or cost - a key aspect of any for-profit or non-profit organization. The underlying assumption, of course, is that having customers who are raving fans should lead to a successful thriving business but the connection is missing. Is stellar customer services without associated profitability a goal in and of itself? How does an organization balance the goal of exceptional customer service against the associated cost even when profit may not be a motivator?
Overall, I am a fan of Ken Blanchard's work, but not a raving fan of this book.

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

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Book of Speculation

Title:  The Book of Speculation
Author:  Erika Swyler
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Press. 2015. 352 pages.
ISBN:  125005480X / 978-1250054807

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:  "Perched on the bluff's edge, the house is in danger."

Favorite Quote:  "We carry our families like anchors, rooting us in storms, making sure we never drift from where and who we are. We carry our families within us the way we carry our breath underwater, keeping us afloat, keeping us alive. "

Simon Watson lives alone in a house on a bluff in Long Island Sound. The house threatens to fall to the sea at any moment. Simon is alone. His sister Enola lives on the road as a traveling performer. His father is gone, and his mother drowned many years ago on July 24.

One day, a mysterious book arrives on Simon's doorstep - a book with words, names, sketches, and perhaps a key to the past. As Simon loses his job, the book and his family's history becomes his project. In his research, a startling pattern emerges. Generations of women in his family have drowned at a young age over the years; all have died on July 24. How considering that so many in the family can hold their breath under water for over ten minutes? Why? Is his sister next?

Simon's search leads to family history that goes back to the 1700s and to the world of Hermelius Peabody and his "troupe of traveling entertainers." Alternating chapters of the book travel between Simon's research and the mysterious, magical world of the past. The past is filled with color and intrigue - a traveling circus, a mute boy, a fortuneteller, and a killer. Comparatively, Simon's chapters seem prosaic - job, money, house, research. The past is the story; the present is trying to figure out the past to stop history from repeating itself. The past is magic and mermaids; the present is ordinary humans making do. The past is a drama; the present introduces too many connections and elements to that drama to remain true to any given one. A thread of continuity is needed between past and present; the book however connects every dot and ties in every character, making it unnecessarily jumbled.

Magic, mystery, and family history make up The Book of Speculation. Simon is a librarian, and the story centers on an antique book. It seems a recipe for a book I would love. However, something seems missing. It's not a bad book, but something keeps it from being the engrossing story the description suggests it could be.

I have seen this book compared to The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern which I loved. For me, this book does not have the same sense of enchantment. The two do have the traveling circus setting in common, but that is where the similarity ends.

The Book Speculation seems full of action, but it reads really slowly. Even in the middle of storms, arguments, and even killings, the pace of the book is really slow. The characters also seems not to develop or engage me emotionally, especially the main character Simon. The ending answers the questions of the book, but the story seems unresolved. The writing itself is dark and atmospheric as are the illustrations drawn by the author. At times, they almost capture me, but not quite. This book is odd. I feel like I should have loved it. I didn't, but find it difficult to explain why. Just the idea that something is missing and speculations of what that magical missing element of the story might be.

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

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Little Paris Bookshop

Title:  The Little Paris Bookshop
Author:  Nina George
Publication Information:  Crown. 2015. 400 pages.
ISBN:  0553418777 / 978-0553418774

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

Opening Sentence:  "How on earth could I have let them talk me into it?

Favorite Quote:  "Reading makes people impudent, and tomorrow's world is going to need some people who aren't shy to speak their minds, don't you think?"

Monsieur Jean Perdu is lost, by name and in life. The word "perdu" means "lost" in French. A lost bookseller in a bookshop in Paris - The description is a perfect hook to draw a reader in.

The book starts off really strong. Monsieur Perdu runs a bookshop, the Literary Apothecary, on a barge in the Seine. He sells books as medicine to his customers In conversation, he is able to hear their deepest needs and desires. He refuses to sell them what they think they want and then finds just the right book for what ails them. I love the idea of books as medicine; I have quite a medicine closet of my own, being drawn to different authors and books depending on what is going on in my life. The book includes an appendix with some of Monsieur Perdu's prescriptions:

  • The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is "effective in large doses for treating pathological optimism or a sense of humor failure."
  • Moby-Dick is "for vegetarians" and may cause a "fear of water."
  • 1984 by George Orwell is "past its sell-by date."

The knowledge and love of books and a sense of humor shines through in these prescriptions. Had the book stuck with this theme, who knows where it may have ended. Unfortunately, this book turns in a completely different direction. It follows Monsieur Perdu, who has been able to find a book for what ails everyone except for him. He pines for a love years ago; he lives a solitary life holding on to his sadness, in effect building a life around that sadness.

A found letter jars his life, making him realize that all may not have been as he thought. On an impulse, he starts on a grand adventure to recover what he lost. The remainder of the book is about his romance, and the characters he meets along the way.

Unfortunately, I find his love story neither believable nor particularly engaging. Essentially, this is the story of one woman who openly loves two men and believes that "love doesn't need to be restricted to one person to be true." Both men seem perfectly accepting of both relationships. Of course, complications exist, but that is still the essence of the love story. Monsieur Perdu spends a large part of his life pining over someone who describes herself as "the voracious want-it-all."

When he discovers the letter and the truth, it's as if he has been released from his bond of sadness. That release is understandable. After years, a question has been answered; guilt may remain, but the sadness of being left is gone. What is less understandable is that he seems to immediately begin a new relationship. At one point, he gets the following advice, "Do you know that there's a halfway world between each ending and each new beginning? It's called the hurting time, Jean Perdu. It's a bog; It's where your dreams and worries and forgotten plans gather. Your steps are heavier during that time. Don't underestimate the transition, Jeanno, between farewell and new departure. Give yourself the time you need. Some thresholds are too wide to be taken in one stride." The book depicts Jean Perdu and his new love as two lost and grieving souls coming together and finding comfort in each  other. Given how he has lived his life, the abruptness of this relationship - the quick jump from ending to beginning - seems out of character.

 A story about a love affair with books turns into the story of a romance. How disappointing.

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

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Hyacinth Girls

Title:  Hyacinth Girls
Author:  Lauren Frankel
Publication Information:  Crown. 2015. 304 pages.
ISBN:  055341805X / 978-0553418057

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

Opening Sentence:  "On a chilly October morning I watched them put Callie's face on a billboard:  two men in hard hats hoisting the vinyl sheet on a rope through the air."

Favorite Quote:  "People put together lots of facts and still miss the truth."

"Do you know your children?" Beginning with this compelling question, Hyacinth Girls takes on the issue of bullying. Can a victim be a bully? Can a bully become the bullied? Are there signs? Told through the alternating perspectives of Rebecca and Callie, the book takes on the issue through both a parent's and a teenager's eyes.

Rebecca is Callie's guardian and a single parent trying to raise her best friend's daughter. Callie, by all appearances, is doing well - an honor student and the center of a group of friends. As the book begins, Rebecca is shocked when Callie is accused of hurting another student, Robyn. Her instinctive reaction is that it couldn't be Callie; some other explanation must exist. The first half of the book walks through Rebecca's journey - her disbelief, her accusations toward Robyn and even Robyn's mother, her increasing worry about Callie, and her flashbacks into her own past. The reader keeps guessing at what really happened pretty much as Rebecca does. The second half of the book depicts the same situation from Callie's perspective, really driving home all that Rebecca does not see. It drives home the point that a lot can happen in a teen's life without the parents ever being aware of it. The ending brings it back to Rebecca.

Bullying is a powerful issue. This book, however, goes far beyond bullying. The story of Callie's background and Rebecca's history gets almost equal billing throughout. Callie is an orphan. Both parents, Joyce and Curtis, died in unfortunate circumstances when Callie is an baby. Her immediate family feels unable to care for Callie at that moment. Guardianship passes to Rebecca. Joyce was Rebecca's best friend, and Curtis was Rebecca's cousin. In caring for Callie, Rebecca does her best but is also unable to let go of the past. Some elements that emerge from this storyline are somewhat far-fetched and come together too neatly particularly towards the end of the book.

Friendship, particularly friendships between girls and between women, are also a critical part of the Hyacinth Girls. Rebecca and Joyce. Rebecca and Lara. Callie, Ella, and Dallas. Callie and Robyn. The importance of these relationships and their enormous impact on the life of each girl are a major theme of the book. Equally important are the far-reaching effects when these friendships are betrayed.

Each one of these elements could form the foundation of an entire book. Combining them in this one muddles the conversation about bullying. Yes, bullying happens, but including all the other elements puts into place the idea that bullying is something that happens "out there" when other circumstances enable it, lead to it, or facilitate it. The reality is bullying happens everyday and everywhere in the most ordinary of circumstances. Extreme situations as in this book do not need to exist for bullying to be a problem.

That being said, the book does an excellent job of capturing the desperation and the lack of understanding of both the parent and the child. If it starts even one conversation about this important issue, the book will have succeeded.

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

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World

Title:  Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World
Author:  Mark Miodownik
Publication Information:  Mariner Books (reprint edition). 2014. 272 pages.
ISBN:  0544483944 / 978-0544483941

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

Opening Sentence:  "As I stood on a train bleeding from what would later be classified as a thirteen-centimeter stab wound, I wondered what to do."

Favorite Quote:  "You don't have to go into a museum to wonder at how history and technology have affected human cultures. their effects are around you now."

Stuff matters. What stuff? The "marvelous materials that shape our man-made world" include steel, paper, concrete, chocolate, foam, plastic, glass, graphite, and porcelain. This set of seemingly very different things are all brought together cohesively into this one book.

The opening sentence of the book is certainly unexpected. You would not expect a nonfiction science book to begin with a stabbing. A mystery or a thriller maybe, but not a book on the man-made materials of our world. The opening, however, sets the tone for the entire book. The book is surprisingly personal, with stories and histories. The story quality and conversational style also make the book relatively easy to read.

Don't be fooled by the seemingly casual tone of the book though. The book contains a lot of knowledge and hard core science. The author Mark Miodownik is a materials scientist and professor at University College London. He is also a director of the Institute of Making, which houses a Material Library - a growing collection of materials from around the world. This book is the result of his experience. It presents research history, atomic structures, technological advances and other descriptions to accomplish its scientific purpose. It just does it in a way as to be easily accessible to a casual reader and in a way to move beyond the science and look at its implications for our culture, our lives, and our world.

The author begins with a photo of himself on his roof. This photograph is the anchor to bring together writings on very disparate things. All the chapters in the book begin with that photograph, for each of the materials discussed can be found in that photograph. A chapter on each material stands alone and can be read alone. However, the repeated image creates a link that ties the individual pieces together.

From the one photograph, the author writes about each material in turn. You would think that a book talking about the materials of our world turn by turn would title its chapters for the material being discussed. But not this book. The title of each chapter is instead an adjective - indomitable, trusted, fundamental, delicious, marvelous, imaginative, invisible, unbreakable, and refined. The author uses the adjectives to illustrate that "we all have personal relationships with our material world, and these are simply mine." The author interjects reflection, culture, and a little philosophy into science - a necessary combination in our increasingly man-made world.

The final two chapters - Immortal and Synthesis - move beyond the materials. Synthesis as the title suggests brings the book together, presenting final thoughts and conclusions. The chapter Immortal is the anomaly in the book. It does not talk about one particular material but the entire technology behind biomedical engineering. Using the analogy of The Six Million Dollar Man, it discusses the need, technology, issues, and ethics surrounding medical engineering. Thus, a book that starts with a stabbing ends with the ability to "rebuild" man and leaves the reader with a sense of wonder about what amazing materials surround us and a sense of reflection about materials to come.

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

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Truth According to Us

Title:  The Truth According to Us
Author:  Annie Barrows
Publication Information:  The Dial Press. 2015. 512 pages.
ISBN:  0385342942 / 978-0385342940

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 1938, the year I was twelve, my hometown of Macedonia, West Virginia, celebrated is sesquicentennial, a word I thought had to do with fruit for the longest time."

Favorite Quote:  "He was lying; I could hear it the way you hear a tune and you what the next note is; you know how it goes. I wondered how many times I'd heard him lie, to know so well what it sounded like."

The biggest aspect of the publicity for this book is that it is written by Annie Barrows, one of the authors of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. I read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society several years ago and remember really enjoying it. (In my pre-blog days. So, no review) The title alone is memorable! That is my reason for wanting to read this book. I started eagerly, ready to love it.

My reaction at the end is mixed. My reaction to this book is similar to my reaction to A Place for Us by Harriet Evans. Both are slow moving portraits with a lot of characters and family secrets coming out. Both books have elements that work, and both would get a higher rating from me with a little bit less in them.

The "Us" in this book is primarily the Romeyn family, long time residents of Macedonia, West Virginia. Felix and his sister Jottie live in town and are raising Felix's daughters, Willa and Bird. Layla Beck is the outsider. She comes to Macedonia to compile its history as part of the Federal Writer's Project. Truly, she comes to Macedonia having earned her father's wrath. She becomes a boarder at the Romeyn home. She gets pulled in to the history of the town, which is entwined with the history of the Romeyn. As history emerges, so do secrets, changing the family forever.

What works in this book is the historical background. The Federal Writers' Project was an actual program created by the US Work Progress Administration to provide jobs for white-collar workers in the 1930s. The employment was to create guidebooks for different US locales and resources. The project lasted only a few years before being absorbed into other programs. I find it fascinating to think that the US government set out to create jobs for writers and historians!

What works in this book is the setting. The 1930s Depression era small town of Macedonia, West Virginia is captured for its Southern-ness, its cast of personalities, its smallness, and even its sweltering summer heat. It becomes a vivid canvas for the small town intrigues and the family saga this book entails. What doesn't work is that the book is too detailed. Not all the history and descriptions included are necessary; at times, the book seems to drag on. Even at over 500 pages, the length alone is never an issue; it's the seemingly unneeded length. How many time is it necessary to be reminded of the sweltering hot summer?

What works in this book are the quirky characters - particularly Jottie, Layla, and Willa. Jottie is the older woman from a small Southern town. She has seen a lot in life and lives with the ghosts of her past. Layla is the young debutante and the daughter of a senator. She has pushed her father too far and is shipped off to earn her keep. Layla is muddling her way through her current dilemma. Willa is the plucky, precocious twelve years old, who is trying to figure out her family past and her own future direction. Her curiosity opens doors long closed and brings secrets long buried to light. The three provide an interesting set of perspectives to move the story forward. What doesn't work, however, is the very slow pace of the book. Nothing much happens until well into the book when secrets begin to come out. Secrets emerge, and then the slow pace resumes. Through much of the book, I find myself skimming over the details to get to the plot and, hence, not fully engaged in the characters. So, I liked the book; I just didn't love it.

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