Friday, April 29, 2016

The Father: Made in Sweden

Title:  The Father:  Made in Sweden, Part I
Author:  Anton Svensson (author) and Elizabeth Clark Wessel (translator)
Publication Information:  Quercus. 2016. 592 pages.
ISBN:  1681445409 / 978-1681445403

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:  "He's sitting in a yellow Volkswagen van that smells of sweat and pain and something else he can't quite put his finger on."

Favorite Quote:  "We are a clan ... A clan always sticks together ... A clan can't be broken ... No matter what happens ... In a clan, a real clan, we never hurt each other ... In a clan, in a real clan, we protect each other, always, always, always."

Now. Then. Then. Now. Now is the 1990s when three brothers plan, orchestrate, and execute a slew of bank robberies across Sweden. Then is the troubling childhood of these young men that offers an explanation of their capacity to commit the crimes that they do.

This book is a true story turned into fiction as told by co-authors Stefan Thunberg and and Anders Rosalind, the two halves of the pseudonym Anton Svensson. Stefan Thunberg is the fourth brother from the very family whose story this book tells. He emerged from the household but did not become a part of the crime spree. I started to say ... emerged from the same childhood, but then again, no two children, even those from the same family have the same childhood. No two children have the same memories or feel the same impact of a childhood, even as troubling as this one.

In this case, Leo is the oldest brother, the leader, the protector. He is the one who, in childhood, bears the brunt of his father's upbringing. The father's upbringing has the objective of helping his son grow up into a "man." The end result is unfortunately a man who becomes a criminal and who leads his brothers into this life of crime.

The book descriptions markets this story as a thriller. It does have action and violence. However, the story is more about the psychology and the tragedy of these brothers' lives. The now is about the planning and execution of robberies - the weapons, the money, the control, the leadership, the fear, and the pursuit. The then is about a father systemically turning his own son into a fighting machine, regardless of who is on the other side of the battle. The then is about an indoctrination process and a brain washing until a child turns into an adult who knows nothing else. It is about watching an extremist being created - a frightening reality.

I decided to read this book primarily because it is based on a true story. Before reading the book, I happened to read an article titled "I ratted out my bank robber brothers." It was about the author Stefan Thunberg and his reflections back on his childhood. The unfortunate title of the article, however, tinges, my reaction to the book. That combined with the fact that the book is written as fiction does leave me questioning what part is real and what part is sensationalized for the book. That question keeps me from completely being absorbed in this story. For my reading of the book, the question becomes the focus rather than the story itself. I am left researching to find out what the "real" story is.

The storytelling is intense and at times very difficult to get through. Beyond a point, the details become sometimes repetitive and somewhat overwhelming. I find myself skimming through the details and reading articles online to more quickly find out the rest of the story. I want to know the story, but perhaps not in all its gory detail.

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

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Food and the City

Title:  Food and the City: New York's Professional Chefs, Restaurateurs, Line Cooks, Street Vendors, and Purveyors Talk About What They Do and Why They Do It
Author:  Ina  Yalof
Publication Information:  G P Putnam Sons. 2016. 384 pages.
ISBN:  0399168923 / 978-0399168925

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

Opening Sentence:  "I grew up in Miami Beach, a child of parents who didn't cook - unless throwing frozen TV dinners into the oven every night is your idea of cooking."

Favorite Quote:  "What makes the great ones great - waiters to caterers, executive chefs to line cooks, newly arrived to fourth generational - is that when it comes to food, they know even the most minute detail can make a huge different."

Food and the City is like Brandon Stanton's Humans of New York minus the photographs and with a focus on the food culture of New York City. It is the stories of everyday people who are at the heart of the food scene of the city.

The introduction describes the people and the book. "The people with the most riveting tales to tell were, more often than not, people I'd never heard of or read about ... This book is an oral history in which the characters speech for and about themselves." This description hits at the heart of the book. These are not the stories of big name chefs or TV personalities. While I am familiar with many of the restaurants and business these people work in, I had no idea of their names or their stories.

Is this list complete or "THE" list of the food who's who of New York? Given the size and diversity of New York City, it is probably impossible to have any list be complete or solely representative of the city. As someone fortunate enough to have the ability to enjoy all that New York City has to offer, I am glad to see some of my favorite places represented in the book. I am also glad to see the book capture the diversity of the city, with people from so many different ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds. What unites them is their love of food and their desire to share that food with others. That makes me happiest of all. I now have old favorites to go back to with a new understanding and a new list of places to try and people to meet.

The stories in the book are organized into several sections, based on some commonality - either an immigrant story, an inherited business, a clientele, or a role in the industry. What is interesting about the sections is that together each section provides a different look into the world of food. Every role within the industry has a unique perspective, and grouping the stories in this manner provides a stronger focus on that viewpoint.

Other than that, the sections in the book are really not significant because it is the individual stories that shine. The stories cover such a wide range of experiences, from a chef at Riker's Island prison to an Egyptian immigrant with a doctorate degree running the a wildly popular food card to the pastry chef at the elite restaurant Daniel. You can read the book cover to cover or just read about one and put the book down. You can flip the book open and read one at random because each one stands alone. This essay format makes the book very easy to read and navigate.

Two things I wish this book had - pictures and a food map. I would love to see the faces behind the names, the stories, and the places. Pictures would make these personal stories so much more personal. A food map is pretty self-explanatory. I want to know where to find these places, and I want to know what parts of the city this food tour covers. Yes, I can look them up, but I would love to have a visual tour as well the stories.

For those familiar with New York City, see if your favorite places are represented or find some new ones to try. For those unable to get to the City, here is a look at some wonderful people who call New York home and a unique way for the armchair traveler to wind their way through the city.

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

Monday, April 25, 2016

Happy People Read and Drink Coffee

Title:  Happy People Read and Drink Coffee
Author:  Agnes Martin-Lugand
Publication Information:  Weinstein Books. 2016. 256 pages.
ISBN:  1602862842 / 978-1602862845

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

Opening Sentence:  "Mom, please?"

Favorite Quote:  "The only thing I hold against you is that you left me all alone. I'm lost."

Happy people. Books and reading. Coffee. Doesn't that seem like a perfect combination for a book? Add to that a lovely, vibrant cover. That puts forth an image of warmth and joy, a lovely premise for a cozy read.

Unfortunately, this book has none of those elements. No happy people. No coffee. No reading. The title comes from the tagline from a literary cafe that the main character owns, but it does not really feature in the book. This book does have a lot of unhappy people, a lot of drunkenness (and I don't mean on coffee), many many cigarettes, and definitely no reading.

The book description warns that the book begins in a place of sadness - an event too terrible to even contemplate. A woman loses her beloved husband and child in a car accident. She is left with pain, sorrow, and what ifs. She is lost. The description suggest an emotional journey and hints at hope emerging from an unimaginable tragedy, all of which can be a strong premise for a moving story.

An accident takes away what Diane holds most dear. A year passes by, but Diane's life stops at the moment of the accident. How can she go on? Family and friends try to help and then back away, all except for Diane's best friend and business partner Felix. The opening chapters of the book tell the story of Diane's grief and are the most compelling of the book.  However, even in this section, Diane's strained relationship with her parents is depicted but never explained, leaving a hole in the narrative.

Then, a chance memory leads Diane to move from her Paris home to a remote village in Ireland. She runs from her loss, and runs to fulfill a dream her husband had. All of a sudden, I have visions of the book and movie P.S. I Love You. The loss of a beloved husband. A trip to Ireland. The parallels are there. The premise for a strong emotional story still exists or at least for a sweet, perhaps overly sentimental story perfect for a beach read.

Unfortunately, the book does not take that route either. Yes, as in P.S. I Love You, another man enters the picture. However, the story does not remain sweet. It is tinged with characters that seem like caricatures. A brooding, cranky hero with a heart of gold whose back story is never developed enough to be believable. A catty, competitive, and manipulative woman whose presence in the book moves it in a direction completely different than a story about grief and loss.

My favorite character of the book is Diane's friend Felix. He stands by her through her entire journey, rearranging his life to be there for his friend, caring for her even when she doesn't, and telling her what she needs to hear. That is the kind of friend you want in your corner. Unfortunately, the remainder of his life comes across as an exaggerated stereotype, almost cartoonish and completely unnecessary to Diane's story. The ending does manage to salvage Diane's journey of loss, but unfortunately, it is not enough.

This book is translated from the original French. I don't know if it loses something in the translation. Unfortunately, the cliche, don't judge a book by its cover, applies to this book but not in the way it is usually intended. The lovely cover, the title, and the book description conjure a picture that the book does not deliver on.

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

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Around the Fire

Title:  Around the Fire: Recipes for Inspired Grilling and Seasonal Feasting from Ox Restaurant
Author:  Greg Denton, Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton, and Stacy Adimando
Publication Information:  Ten Speed Press. 2016. 272 pages.
ISBN:  1607747529 / 978-1607747529

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

Opening Sentence:  "A great grilled meal stays with you, as does the experience of cooking one around a fire."

Favorite Quote:  "Our vision is that these recipes will help promote more than just cooking seriously good food but also the joy of sharing it ... As the world gets closer and smaller - communication and travel are easier, and people are taking trips near and far to expand their food experiences - everybody seems to be on a quest to find and re-create that same feeling these far-flung places foster. Here's the secret we want to share:  It's right in your back yard."

The title Around the Fire comes with the subtitle "Recipes for Inspired Grilling and Seasonal Feasting from Ox Restaurant." That sets up a lot of expectations. Ox Restaurant in Portland, Oregon has its tag line, "Argentine inspired Portland food." That tagline is of course the basis of this book as well. From Argentina comes the open fire and the family style meals. From Portland comes the focus on locally sourced, seasonal ingredients.

The center of this book around grilling is clear from the cover and title. The introduction provides a summary of grilling tools and techniques. The grilling recipes cover meat, seafood, and vegetables.

Then, the book goes well beyond just grilling. The phrase "around the fire" conjures up images of warmth and of family and friends gathered at the hearth. This is where the "feasting" from the title comes in. The book includes provides recipes to assemble an entire meal to be savored and shared. It includes accompaniments to the grilled stars of the meal. Sections on Beginnings, Salads, Warm Vegetables, Desserts, and Cocktails. The desserts in particularly look incredibly decadent (warm hazelnut brown butter torte, vanilla bean tres leches cake, or warm parmesan pound cake anyone?).

Visually, this book is beautiful and easy to use. Full color photographs present appetizing, restaurant quality dishes. A brief section titled How to Use this Book does just what it promises; it sets out the authors' vision for the book. A detailed table of contents provides the list of recipes at an easy glance. An index adds the ability to search by ingredient. Each recipe has a clear ingredient list and directions. Use of formatting techniques like fonts, columns, and lots of white space make for a clear presentation and allow the color photographs to really shine.

The content of this book indicates that it is definitely a restauranteur's cookbook. The plating of the food in the photographs, the titles of the recipes, and the ingredients themselves lend themselves to a setting of food connoisseurs rather than a weeknight family dinner.

The recipes I find myself looking to again and again directly from the book are the sections on vegetables, both on and off the grill. I see familiar vegetables served in combination I have not considered before - grilled butternut squash with za'atar, blistered snap peas with "everything" bagel seasoning, and roasted cauliflower with a spicy raisin vinaigrette, to name a few.

However, many ingredients in the meats and seafood sections of the book - oysters, Dungeness crab, foie gras, beef tongue, beef tripe, squid, and spot prawns -  are not ones I would use, at least not in everyday cooking. The exact recipes in these sections remain for either a special occasion or an experiment, but the techniques, sauces, marinades, and sides can be applied to other everyday ingredients.

Therein lie the tools that a home cook can apply to his or her own cooking. As the book suggests, "Consider this book a choose-your-own-adventure concept ... we want you to be involved the moment you flip to page one, and to create and master your own dining destiny."

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

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Ecliptic

Title:  The Ecliptic
Author:  Benjamim Wood
Publication Information:  Penguin Press. 2016. 480 pages.
ISBN:  1594206864 / 978-1594206863

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

Opening Sentence:  "He was just seventeen when he came to Portmantle, a runaway like the rest of us, except there was a harrowed quality about this boy that we had not seen before in any of the newcomers."

Favorite Quote:  "The way we envision the stars is by imagining they're attached to a giant invisible sphere surrounding the earth. It is a total fiction, really - just a construction we came up with to help us get our heads around the complexity of it all ... The ecliptic, put simply is the plane of the earth's orbit around the sun. But since we all live here on earth, we observe the sun to be moving along this plane instead. Why? Because what would be the point of looking at things from the perspective of the sun? That's no use to anyone ... Ergo, it's an imaginary circle, as it's only a part of our human construction of the cosmos."

What does the scientific concept of the ecliptic have to do with an artist's refuge off the coast of Turkey and what does that have to do with Scottish painter Elspeth "Knell" Conroy? Explaining this puzzle and the corrections between these disparate ideas becomes the story of this book that revolves between two worlds.

Portmantle is a secret artist's refuge off the coast of Turkey. Why Turkey? I don't really know because the physical location has no impact on the story. Portmantle itself it the setting, not its geographic placement. It is a refuge not simply a retreat because the artists come and stay for long periods of times, many times even years. Refuge though comes at a price and with its own set of strict rules, much like a secret society. Knell is a long time resident along with a core group of friends she has found there. Their life has a rhythm that works for them, rules and all.  That is, until a young man named Fullerton comes in as a new resident. He brings change that reverberates through the colony.

London is Elspeth "Knell" Conroy's chosen home, where she comes to find her place in the art world. It depicts Elspeth's journey as an artist and a woman. Her career and her life has its highs and its crises. This section of the book depicts a detailed picture of an artist's angst and the personal cost of an artist's success. It pictures the euphoric highs and the depths of despair.

Cutting across both worlds is art with descriptions of the process of creating art and the works of art themselves. A lot of words are used to describe the art, and the thought comes to mind that sometimes a picture is worth a thousand word. This book would lend itself to illustrations; I would love to see the images that are described, and a visual may have the impact that words just cannot capture in this instance. (I am such a word nerd that I cannot believe I just said that! For this book, though, pictures with the words would make a big difference.)

I find the world and characters of Portmantle more interesting than Elspeth's life in London. Knell's cronies Quickman, MacKinney, and Pettifer and newcomer Fullerton are intriguing characters. Knell is the painter. Quickman is the author. MacKinney is the playwright. Pettifer is the architect. It is unclear what art haunts Fullerton. These characters sound like they have amazing stories of their own, but we don't hear them. This book is about Elspeth; it is a first person narrative told through her eyes. Perhaps, that explains the lack of development of the stories of others. Perhaps.

At this point, the book becomes difficult to discuss without a spoiler. Suffice it to say, that by the end, the structure and the focus all makes sense, but I am left with the question - did I just read 500 pages for that? The setup is promising. The world of Portmantle is one I want to know more about. Unfortunately, the ending makes the rest of the book seem contrived and makes this not the story for me.

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

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The A-Z of You and Me

Title:  The A-Z of You and Me
Author:  James Hannah
Publication Information:  Sourcebooks Limited. 2016. 336 pages.
ISBN:  149263316X / 9781492633167

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

Opening Sentence:  "I know exactly what you'd be saying to me now."

Favorite Quote:  "Just - just don't leave anything unsaid to the people who matter. It only takes a few worlds to change your world."

What attracted me to this book is the cover and the premise. The "Me" of this book is Ivo. The "You" is revealed to be his once-girlfriend Mia. Ivo is a forty-some year old man, dying alone in a hospice.

As a means of coping and passing the long days alone, he plays a game. Starting with the letter A and going all the way to Z, he thinks of a body part beginning with that letter and a memory of his life associated with it. In this structure, the book gradually reveals the history of his life. The history has love and friendship, but for the most part, it is a history of mistakes and regrets. What happens to Ivo and Mia's relationship is at the heart of Ivo's memories and his regrets.

The structure of the book centered around memories creates a nonlinear story. Each chapter reveals some part of Ivo's story. His diabetes diagnosis. His own abuse of his body. His love. His friendships. The mistake that has catastrophic results and becomes a turning point in his life. Each letter of the alphabet reveals some part of the puzzle as to how Ivo ends up alone at the end of his short life. Unfortunately, for me, this structure makes the book difficult to follow and to relate to until enough pieces exist to create at least somewhat of a picture. For me, this comes too late in the book. I spend too much time waiting for the picture to emerge and too much energy trying to keep the specifics of the relationships and chronology sorted in my mind.

My favorite character in the book is Sheila, one of the nurses at the hospice. She is not really part of Ivo's story, but she grounds his memories and anchors the book to the present. She gives credence to Ivo's regrets and his emotional pain beyond his physical ailments. She is the gentle reminder throughout that he must let go of his guilt and his regrets, more for himself than anyone else. In effect, Sheila gives voice to the lesson in the book - the futility of regrets if you do not choose a different action moving forward.

This book is a sad one. On the surface, it is sad of course because it deals with a young man dying. To me, it is so much sadder because Ivo's life seems to center on regrets. His joyous memories are tarnished by those regrets, and his sadness is magnified by the regrets. Unfortunately, the one thing regrets cannot accomplish is to undo the mistakes made.

I feel terrible. I feel bad for the main character of this book. He is is a fairly young man, and he is dying. In the process of dying, he is living with regrets. I feel really bad for the main character. However, I feel even worse that even with such a seemingly sympathetic main character, I do not fall in love with the character or the story. I appreciate the writing and structure of the book, but the characters and the emotions do not capture my heart.

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

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Everyone Brave is Forgiven

Title:  Everyone Brave is Forgiven
Author:  Chris Cleave
Publication Information:  Simon & Schuster. 2016. 432 pages.
ISBN:  1501124374 / 978-1501124372

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

Opening Sentence:  "Was was declared at eleven-fifteen and Mary North signed up at noon."

Favorite Quote:  "Where are you going to take it [life] back to? This life hasn't worked out perfect, maybe I give you that, but it's got you and me in it. I don't see what you could change and still have us be. And I don't see it can be bad so long as we're here for each other."

September 1939 to June June 1942. World War II. London & Malta. Mary. Hilda. Tom. Alistair. Four young people involved in the war effort in different ways. Four young people whose lives are forever altered.

Mary North is from a wealthy family. She is expected to present in society and to marry well. She has different goals and signs up to help with the war effort. Hilda is Mary's friend. She looks forward to the parties and to a suitable marriage; the war changes her path.  Tom and Alistair are friends; they are both fighting in the war in their own way - one on the home front and one on the front lines.

At its heart, this book is a love story. As such, it has some sweet parts, some humorous parts, and some parts in which the war recedes far away. In this way, the book is very much a period piece about British society. The joy and exuberance of young people in love shines through especially at the beginning of the war when no one quite realizes what is to come. The reader does know what is to come, and reading the lightheartedness of these young people is quite disconcerting. As the book progresses, the war permeates the love story with some unexpected turning points; so, be prepared.

Two stories of friendship parallel the love story in this book. Mary and Hilda at times seems to have a love-hate relationship, as best friends sometimes will. Hilda's friendship and what happens to her becomes a background for Mary's story; I would have loved to know more about Hilda's story. Tom and Alistair sometimes seem as two sides to the same person. Their story of their friendship is not really explored, but it serves as a solid foundation for their other relationships.

Interestingly, the story that for me surpasses the others in this book is the story of race relations in England at the time. The prejudices against people of color come up over and over again. This aspect of the story centers on Zachary, a young boy Mary meets as one of her first students. Through Zachary, the reader sees the racism that exists and the actions Zachary's family takes to protect themselves against that racism. It is sad to see that even in a war against a common enemy, the divisions that exist between us remain.

Underlying all the personal stories is the story of war. It is about survival and the things we hold on to to survive. "When ... looked up, he was surprised to find the war. She had done it again, her trick of making it all disappear." From London, France, and Malta, the book shows the horrors of war and the decisions of survival and sacrifice. Those who start off light-hearted and amused at the beginning of the war sadly do not remain so.

This is the first Chris Cleave book I have read. He certainly weaves a visual story that places the reader in the middle of the picture. I can see why he has so many devoted fans.

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

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Love that Boy

Title:  Love That Boy: What Two Presidents, Eight Road Trips, and My Son Taught Me About a Parent's Expectations
Author:  Ron Fournier
Publication Information:  Harmony. 2016. 240 pages.
ISBN:  0804140480 / 978-0804140485

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:  "Our noses almost touched the wall."

Favorite Quote:  "The next parent who Googles 'Is my 2-year-old gifted?' should get a curt response:  'Your 2-year-old is a gift.'"

This book is really not what I expected. Ron Fournier is a longtime political journalist. He is faced with a diagnosis of Asperger's for his son Tyler when Tyler is twelve. Mr. Fournier turns his journalist's skills to that diagnosis even while he traverses its emotional impact on his family. The result is this book.

The book is anchored by Tyler's interests in presidents and how his parents turn that interests into trips and a time for father and son to bond. I expect this book to be about Tyler and about the emotional journey of this family. It is, and it isn't.

Mr. Fournier's journalist skills are apparent in the information contained in the book outside of Tyler's own story. The book in large part is a commentary on society, education, government, and parenting. It repeatedly makes the point of the disservice society does to its children because of its own expectations.  It is editorial writing, if you will. Facts, information, and interviews but with a defined opinion and point of view. It does not remain focused on Tyler's diagnosis, but rather a much broader look at parenting and its challenges. For a relatively slim volume, this book covers a lot of ground.

The father-son trips that are the cover story of this book don't actually form a major part of the book. They are presented more as descriptive transitions between the chapters of the book. The aspect of this book that is most unexpected is the amount of presidential history included. Tyler's interest is presidential history. The father-son trips are centered around the presidents. Because Mr. Fournier is a political journalistic, he and Tyler even visit with George Bush and Bill Clinton. However, it is unclear whether politics and political description and history needs to be large part of this book. For example, why is a description of a president flirting with Lori Fournier included in a book about parenting? The focus of the writing at times unfortunatley becomes the presidents and not Tyler. Again, For a relatively slim volume, this book covers a lot of ground, sometimes unnecessarily.

The book keeps a distance from the emotional side of this journey. I expected to read the family story, but given Mr. Fournier's journalism background, this result is not unexpected. The prevalent emotion that does show through seems to be guilt. Could there have been earlier diagnosis? What impact did the extensive travel required by his career have? How does a father's fear of embarrassment lead to his behavior towards his son? Could have. Should have. These feelings are ones parents experience universally as we all try and do the best for our children. These descriptions are present in the book but more journalistically and analytically than emotionally.

The lesson that I walk away with is in the title. "Love that boy" is a father's statement about his son. More than that, "Love that boy" is an imperative for all parents. Love your children completely and absolutely for who they are in all their splendid uniqueness.

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

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Secrets of Flight

Title:  The Secrets of Flight
Author:  Maggie Leffler
Publication Information:  William Morrow Paperbacks. 2016. 384 pages.
ISBN:  006242792X / 978-0062427922

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

Opening Sentence:  "It was my eighty-seventh birthday when my sister Sarah walked into the meeting room of the Carnegie Library."

Favorite Quote:  "Every family has secrets and they're usually only important to the people who are keeping them."

A decision made in the name of love reverberates decades later. That is the theme of The Secrets of Flight. Told in alternating voices, the book weaves past and present into a story of how Mary Browning was once Miriam Lichtenstein. The alternating perspectives are so different that this book feels like reading three independent stories. The stories fold into one, but nevertheless, the voices and central themes of each remain uniquely distinct.

Mary Browning is age 88, a widow, and leading a quiet life with her apartment, her memories, and her library writing group. Mary's story is one of regrets and one of remembrance. It is a story of hiding and pretending even when there is no need to do so. It is about still coming to terms with a decision made decades ago - a decision that brings heartache but also brings much love to Mary's life. Mary's story is the saddest of the three because her life centers on regret. Her choices seem to have closed her off to the joys and friendship surrounding her, but, at the same time, it's hard to be engaged with Mary because her story seems closed off and the least developed.

Elyse Stickler is fifteen, with all the angst that implies - school, parents, siblings, friends, and boys.  Her parents are getting divorced. She is a misfit in school, waiting for one special boy to notice her. She has a fight with her best friend. Her grandma is sick. Her instant connection with Mary seems a stretch, but perhaps in keeping with an impulsive teenager. Elyse's story is the most alive and the most emotion filled, more so than either Mary or Miriam. Thus, it gives the book an overall young adult feel.

Miriam "Miri" Lichtenstein's story is the story of Mary's past. It is about a young Jewish girl in World War II, a dream of flying, and a love. Wrapped up in Miriam's story are several major topics - World War II, aviation history, women's rights, and religious prejudice. The history of the fly girls is new to me and, as with most historical fiction, inspires me to learn more. However, although the book is titled the secrets of flight, it really becomes about the secrets that Miriam keeps and the life choices that she makes. Her fly girl history becomes just a background for her story. It takes a me while to realize that the "flight" in the title perhaps has more meaning than the literal flying of planes.

Tying these stories together is a big mysterious connection except that it is really not a mystery. To this reader, the connection becomes clear pretty close to the beginning of the book, and then it's a wait until the characters see it. Given the ages of the characters involved, the connection seems too slight to be truly believable. The melodramatic ending does not help that believability. Thus, overall, the book does not quite ring true, but is still a quick and entertaining read.

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

Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Yoga of Max's Discontent

Title:  The Yoga of Max's Discontent
Author:  Karan Bajaj
Publication Information:  Riverhead Books. 2016. 336 pages.
ISBN:  1594634114 / 978-1594634116

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

Opening Sentence:  "I give her a week at most."

Favorite Quote:  "So many teachers, so many belief systems, yet none inspired confidence. Why wasn't the path to the most fundamental human quests clearer?"

First, a disclaimer. This book centers on a belief system and a lifestyle. My view of beliefs is that to each his own as long as we show respect for each other's. So, no comments on that content of the book other than the fact that this book can serve as a guide to those looking to follow a yogic lifestyle.

Now on to the book and the story it tells. The plot is easily described. Max is a successful young man who has just lost his mother and finds himself at a crossroads in life. A chance meeting with a stranger sets him on a path to seek enlightenment. His journey criss-crosses through India, as he looks for answers. The book is about his path to contentment and peace.

This book is easy and quick to read. The author's acknowledgements state, "This isn't a book as much as a result of five years of my life trying to walk on the path of yoga. I stumbled and struggled often to reach the point where I become just a channel for this story to tell itself." This statement describes the book itself. It stumbles and tumbles through Max's journey, at times reading more like a memoir than a novel.  It includes many descriptions of yoga practises and the associated lifestyle, fascinating as an insight into a different culture. Note that the book unfortunately also includes a couple of sex scenes, which at best seem awkward and out of place, especially in a book focused on spiritual enlightenment.

My biggest issue with the book is that I do not find Max a sympathetic character. Yes, he is a child of the projects, growing up in poverty and amid violence. Yes, his life had a duality of his private school education during the day and his street life in the projects at night. Yet, throughout all of this, he is loved. Although his childhood is not deeply explored in the book, it is clear that his mother makes sacrifice after sacrifice to get her children a better life.

Max, in some ways, is the epitome of the American dream - a child of immigrant parents who grows up in the projects and makes it to a pinnacle of success in his career. Several times, he talks about being able to do certain things because he has money. It is his mother's sacrifices that ultimately lead to financial security. It is in fact his success that enables him to give voice to his discontent, leave his job, and go in search of contentment.

I understand the quest for something more, but it seems a luxury afforded to one who is unattached, financially able, and not struggling day by day to survive. Perhaps a greater development of Max's childhood would make his quest more understandable, but I am left wondering what his mother would have thought of his decision. The question arises as to what contentment is, and, I suppose, in this case, I trouble accepting Max's definition.

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

Thursday, April 7, 2016

The Assistants

Title:  The Assistants
Author:  Camille Perri
Publication Information:  G. P. Putnam's Sons. 2016. 288 pages.
ISBN:  0399172548 / 978-0399172540

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

Opening Sentence:  "You've probably heard of my former boss."

Favorite Quote:  "Please believe me when I tell you, I never intended to do anything so incredibly illegal."

9 to 5. Working Girl. The First Wives Club. Robin Hood. The Devil Wears Prada. A lot of stories come to mind when reading this book. The premise of this book is a simple one. One seemingly small decision snowballs into something much bigger and becomes a movement to bring some balance between the haves and the have-nots. The resulting escapades are just fun reading.

Tina Fontana is a Manhattan assistant to the rich and powerful businessman Robert Barlow. The financial gap between CEO and assistant is huge and seemingly insurmountable. Tina's student debt totals an amount Robert would casually spend on one outing. An administrative error provides Tina an opportunity to pay off her debt. She justifies it. No one will know. It's a drop in the bucket for Robert. It won't matter to him.

So it begins. The predictable problem is that of course someone knows. However, they don't hold it against Tina; they don't want to report her; they want in on the scheme. They see the potential in helping more "administrative errors" like this one to occur. The proposed aim - to pay of student loans of those who can't afford to - is honorable, but the means equates to theft. Things get complicated. Very complicated.

The premise of this book is not new. Neither is the story line. In fact, it proceeds in a fairly predictable manner. However, the book is still a fun read.

One thing that stands out about this book is that for the most part, the main character Tina is passive. She makes one decision at the beginning. Beyond that, she is pulled along by circumstances and by other people - forced, coerced, or cajoled. Eventually, she has her moment of strength towards the end of the book, but mostly, she is batted along with the ups and downs of the story. Her friend Emily seems to take a much more active role in making things happen, but this is Tina's story. As such, I don't find myself cheering on Tina, but I do still enjoy reading about the situations she finds herself in.

Along with the professional escapades of the assistants, the book does have a simple love story with Tina at its center. It's sweet, uncomplicated, and adds just another element to this light-hearted story. Boy meets girl. Boy and girl work together. Boy and girl discover they like each other. With the complications of Tina's life, complications in the relationship ensue. Do boy and girl survive Tina's decision? What do you think?

The Assistants is a story of millennials - out of college, saddled with student debt, struggling with finding the right opportunities, and leading technology based lives. The goal of paying off student debt and helping empower the assistants in doing so brings in somewhat loftier civic goals. Contrasting this picture is the image of the rich with vacation homes, lavish entertainment, and thousands of dollars casually spent on trivial things. Both sets of characterizations remain at the surface and run true to the stereotypes. For this light-hearted book, that is enough for the story to proceed and be a fun beach read for the coming season.

My final thought ... I see a movie in the making.

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

Monday, April 4, 2016

Before I Forget

Title:  Before I Forget: Love, Hope, Help, and Acceptance in Our Fight Against Alzheimer's
Author:  B. Smith, Dan Gasby, and Michael Shnayerson
Publication Information:  Harmony. 2016. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0553447122 / 978-0553447125

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

Opening Sentence:  "I know where I'm going."

Favorite Quote:  "The literature has only these words of comfort for a patient and her family at this stage. Remember, there is still a living spirit inside this diminished person, the spirit of someone you love."

Barbara Elaine Smith. B Smith. Supermodel. Chef. Restaurateur. Retail designer. TV and stage actress. Author. Style and lifestyle icon. Woman. Wife. Mother. And now, early onset Alzheimer's patient.

The tag lines on the B Smith website read "Whatever you do, do it with style" and "Standing up, living strong." Both apply to the life B Smith has led, and both apply even more so with her diagnosis in 2013 at age 64 of early onset Alzheimer's.

Since her diagnosis, her husband and and partner Dan Gasby and she have been publicly sharing their  struggles and become vocal advocates for diagnoses, treatment, and research. This book is part of that outreach effort and a courageous public picture of their own very personal battle.

This book is in part a very personal story of loss and grief tempered with strength and hope. It is the story of a family dealing with a devastating diagnosis and all the life changes that diagnosis brings with it. "Alzheimer's does that to every family:  shows you who's in and who's out, whom you can depend on and who gives you a pass." We hear B's words in brief interludes. We hear primarily of Dan's challenges as a caregiver - the grief of watching a loved one change, the day to day challenges of being a caregiver, the adaptations of lifestyle to allow him to care for B, and sometimes the anger and frustration at the situation.

Embedded in this very personal story is also a guidebook for navigating this disease. Sections titled "Lessons Learned" appear throughout the book and deal with everything from symptoms, medications, insurance, and research. Many of this information can be found in other resources as well, but this book provides personal, case-study like details that puts the information into a more understandable and approachable context. For example, when they reach the point of looking for home health care, they are able to afford it, but the book raises the questions of the millions who cannot afford such care. What options are available? What support is available? Note also that some of this information is available for download on the B Smith website. The book itself also includes an additional appendix with a list of resources such as organizations, books, and other tools that can help both patients and caregivers.

The other key focus of the informational sections of the book is B Smith's African American heritage. One stated purpose of the book is to get information out to the African American community and to try and bring greater balance to the ethnicities represented in the research being done. Since genetic studies are such a large component of brain health research, this representation is critical to ensuring that research will bring benefit and a cure to all patients.

The word that comes to mind while reading this book is courageous. Courageous not only in bravely meeting the challenges of this disease but also in sharing those challenges with the public so that others may benefit. My wish to B Smith and her family is the statement with which the book itself ends. "Good luck to us all."

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

Saturday, April 2, 2016

The Translation of Love

Title:  The Translation of Love
Author:  Lynne Kutsukake
Publication Information:  Doubleday. 2016. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0385540671 / 978-0385540674

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

Opening Sentence:  "The car is in a parade all by itself."

Favorite Quote:  "Anything could be endured, she had discovered, if she could only  package the time into discrete little packets. She imagined taking the minutes, each one like a pellet, and wrapping them up - one minute, five minutes, fifteen, thirty. Once she had managed to survive a full hour, she could put the packets of time  into a box, tie it with string, and push it down a conveyor belt. Just one more minute, one more hour, one more day."

Many book have been set during World War II; only a few that I have read have presented a non-Allied perspective. A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding is one that tells a story from a Japanese perspective of the aftermath of the atomic bomb. The Translation of Love takes a broader look at the end of the war and the Allied occupation from a Japanese perspective.

The setting is war-torn Tokyo. The war has ended, but the city is under Allied occupation. General Douglas MacArthur and his troops seek to bring peace and democracy to Japan. Poverty, destruction, and scarcity govern the choices that people are making.

Fumi and Sumiko are sisters in Japan who survive the war; Sumiko particularly makes heartbreaking decisions to survive. Aya is a Canadian of Japanese heritage. She and her father live through the war in a Canadian internment camp and are then deported to Japan at the end of the war. Matt is an American soldier of Japanese heritage, who seeks to serve his country.

Through the stories of these different perspectives, this book highlights the different Japanese experiences in the war. Fumi's story is of the children of the war; they suffer the deprivation and yet survive relatively innocent of many of the atrocities of war. Sumiko's story goes from a family home to the Ginza district of Tokyo. It is the story of the sacrifices made to help a family survive; it is also the story of some negative consequences that Allied Occupation brought to Japan. Matt's story is one of having to prove your loyalty to your country because your appearance suggests you may be the enemy. Aya's story is of the people who are told they don't belong - not in Canada and the US because of their Japanese heritage and not in Japan because they are not Japanese in language and culture.

The thread that pulls the stories together is the fact that Sumiko disappears from Fumi's life, and Fumi sets out to find her. Sumiko leaves for a job, but then never comes home. Why? Has something terrible happened? Fumi's search takes the form of a letter written to General Douglas MacArthur, asking for his help in finding Sumiko. Fumi is the originator of the letter. Aya, with her knowledge of English, becomes the writer. Matt, as part of General MacArthur's correspondence team, becomes the deliverer.

This book starts off strong because the story is anchored around an innocent young girl looking for her sister and another young girl having to deal with the loss of her mother, her home, and her country. Both make compelling characters that draw me into their story.

In the middle of the book, the story scatters because it tries to show the broader impact of the war. In addition to the main characters, it introduces the story of Nancy, an American citizen in Tokyo, who had her American citizenship revoked because of decisions of survival during the war; and the story of Kondo Sensie, a teacher who moonlights as a letter writer. Between all the different perspectives, it becomes difficult to focus on one; the variety starts to overwhelm the book.

By the end, the story pulls together again, into a story of family and friendship embedded into the history of war and survival. Not all the plot lines are fully developed or resolved, but the story does come to a satisfying conclusion making it a powerful and emotional debut.

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