Friday, September 30, 2016

The Wonder

Title:  The Wonder
Author:  Emma Donoghue
Publication Information:  Little, Brown and Company. 2016. 304 pages.
ISBN:  0316393878 / 978-0316393874

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

Opening Sentence:  "The journey was no worse than she expected."

Favorite Quote:  "But haven't most new discoveries in the history of civilization seemed uncanny at first, almost magical? ... From Archimedes to Newton, all the greats"

I absolutely loved Room by Emma Donoghue. Even though I read it years ago, it still stands out as a memorable story. The premise of this book is equally as striking. The idea for the book was inspired by actual cases of fasting girls documented through history in Europe and North America; the resolution of those cases ranged from proof of a hoax to death of the young woman.

In this book, eleven year old Anna O'Donnell seems to survive without food; she has supposedly not eaten for since her eleventh birthday. Is it a hoax? Is it a spiritual miracle? Is it something else all together? Is she of this world? Is she a wonder of this world?

Everyone has their own opinion. The small Irish town outside of Athlone, Ireland, in which young Anna lives sets out to prove or disprove the family's claim. They hire a non-Irish nurse and a Catholic nun to watch the child 24/7 to ensure that she is indeed surviving without food. Lib Wright, the nurse, becomes the main focus of the story. She, of course, does not believe and sets out to prove the fraud. That, in one sentence, is the entire first half of the book. She must watch Anna. She must not let food escape notice. She must prove the hoax. It must be a fraud. Maybe Anna's sneaking food. Maybe the family is complicit. She must watch Anna.

Then, the book takes a turn as Lib gets to know Anna and begins to wonder "what if." Then, unfortunately, the book keeps turning to an unexpected conclusion. Without a spoiler, I will say that the conclusion leaves me disappointed. The buildup of the question is not resolved in the answer. An answer for why and how is given, but the answer opens up an entire new story that is never developed, explained, or pursued. To me, the book is not a psychological thriller as many have termed it, but simply a sordid story of family and child.

Surrounding young Anna's story is Lib's own story of her background, her nurse's training with Florence Nightingale, and her own budding romance. Lib's story acts as background noise for Anna's story and as a vehicle to get Anna's story to an ending. Unfortunately, the first half of the book with Lib's insistence and stringency in her monitoring of Anna sets her up as an unlikable character such that I find myself not caring about her story at all.

I am not entire sure how to rate this book. The first half, if not more, of the book seems repetitious about Lib's belief that it must be a hoax and her focus on keeping constant watch on Anna. Then, the action picks up a bit. The writing keeps me reading because I want to see where the story goes. Unfortunately, I am disappointed by where the story ends up, how quickly it wraps up, and how I arrive at the end not really believing or caring about the story.


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

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Tea Planter's Wife

Title:  The Tea Planter's Wife
Author:  Dinah Jefferies
Publication Information:  Crown. 2016. 432 pages.
ISBN:  0451495977 / 978-0451495976

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

Opening Sentence:  "The woman held a slim white envelope to her lips."

Favorite Quote:  "Nobody had told her that being a mother would mean living with love so unqualified that it left you breathless, and fear so awful that it shook you to your soul. Nor had they said how close those two feelings were."

The Tea Planter's Wife is really the story of two wives and two marriages. The book starts off dramatically with the exit of one wife. The why and how are the prelude to the mystery of this book. The story then fast forwards about a decade as Gwen Hooper arrives to join her husband Laurence on his tea plantation in Ceylon. She is overwhelmed by a new place, a new culture, new expectations, and even by her husband who seems a different person.

Gwen adapts. Her oddly childish and vindictive sister in law Verity moves in. A local artist offers friendship and maybe something more. The plantation manager seeks to keep to the old ways. The plantation workers are sometimes hostile. She sees hints of Laurence's old wife all around and hints of the relationship between Laurence and an investor. Through it all, she slowly finds her place in her marriage and in her new home

A pregnancy adds further joy and anticipation to her life. Then, everything changes again. "Sometimes evens spiral out of control in ways we cannot foresee. It isn't necessarily a case for blame, but for realizing that even a slight lack of judiciousness can trigger something terrible." One decision leads to dire consequences. The progression of the story can be seen in the titles of the four main sections - The New Life, The Secret, The Struggle, and The Truth. Eventually, the answers to the first question of why and how tie into the culmination of the whole story.

The book is set in the beautiful tea plantations of Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Unfortunately, this book is very much about the wealthy settlers who are the main characters. The book captures neither the landscape nor the people and culture. I love books set in places I have never visited; I enjoy learning about and being submerged into the culture. This book unfortunately does not depict that, making the setting almost irrelevant to the story.

The plot is based around genetic science. The book does not delve into the science, of course. Unfortunately, it oversimplifies it. It puts the science into such a melodramatic context that the plot seems far-fetched and unbelievable.

The motivations of certain characters are never explained. In particular, Naveena, the ayah, knows of the events of the past, and of events now. Perhaps, she sees a correlation. However, she never tells anyone. Perhaps, she has reasons not to. Unfortunately, the book never explains. The fact that no other character in the book, not even the ones against Gwen, tell her the story of Laurence's first wife also seems surprising. Why doesn't anyone tell Gwen? In the same way, Verity's actions and motivations are never explained. It seems she has a story behind their dramatic actions, but it is left unexplored except for a nod back to the genetics.

Finally, the book hinges on decisions a mother makes - life altering and heart wrenching decisions. Unfortunately, the emotions of the characters fail to connect. The emotions along with the plot get lost in the melodrama and fail to ring true, making this not the reading experience for me.


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

Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Velvet Hours

Title:  The Velvet Hours
Author:  Alyson Richman
Publication Information:  Berkley. 2016. 384 pages.
ISBN:  0425266265 / 978-0425266267

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

Opening Sentence:  "Outside, I could hear the sound of airplanes, and their rumble filled me with unease."

Favorite Quote:  "Perspective is a tool used far too infrequently. If people had the courage to alternate their lens every now and then, the world would be a far more beautiful place."

The Velvet Hours is a story of two women across time like so many other books. Letters from Paris, The Dollhouse, The House Between Tides, and The Light of Paris all take a similar structure. All have a family or a place, a story of the past and a story of the present, and a woman in the past and a woman now (whenever the "now" for the book is, that is).

In this case, the book is a fictionalized story of an actual Paris apartment and two actual women - Marthe de Florian and her granddaughter Solange Beaugiron. The history goes that Marthe de Florian lived in her Paris apartment until her death in 1939. Her son Henri Beaugiron inherited the apartment, and it passed to his daughter Solange Beaugiron. Solange Beaugiron left Paris during World War II, never returning to clear the apartment. The apartment remained locked, with rent and maintenance paid monthly until Solange's Beaugiron's death in 2010. At that time, the family handed over the apartment to auctioneers, and it was opened after decades. The furnishings found represented a time capsule of the period during which Marthe de Florian lived. Perhaps, the most significant item found in the apartment was a previously uncatalogued, undocumented, unexhibited work by artist Giovanni Boldini. The subject was Marthe de Florian herself. The painting sold at auction for $2.1 million, the highest amount for a work by the artist.

The fictional story goes that Martha de Florian has a child when very young and allows him to be adopted into another family. She then reinvents herself and becomes a courtesan or demimondaine. She takes a rich, married lover who sets her up in a beautiful Paris apartment. There she stays, loved and surrounded by beauty far away from her poverty stricken beginnings. Solange is told of her grandmother's existence when she is a teenager. They meet, and Solange begins visiting regularly. With each visit, she learns a bit more of her grandmother's story. Meanwhile, Solange's world is the 1930s in Europe, and the threat of Hitler and a war looms larger and larger.

As with many of these books, the story goes back and forth between the two times and the lives of the two women. Marthe's story is one of survival, of reinvention, and of love; it also intersects the world of art from painting to ceramics to netsuke. Martha de Florian embodies the outlook, "One needn't be born into a beautiful life in order to have one." Solange's story is a story of the beginnings of World War II; it is a story of self-discovery, family secrets, and her own love story. The focus of the book shifts from starting more with Marthe's story and ending primarily with Solange's story. The shift is gradual and natural, but the book does end rather abruptly.

The questions the book does not answer are as intriguing if not more so than the story it does tell. Why did Solange Beaugiron never go back? Why did the apartment remain sealed for decades? Why did she instruct attorneys to continue paying for the apartment? Now, that would be something to create a fiction around.


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Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Last Days of Night

Title:  The Last Days of Night
Author:  Graham Moore
Publication Information:  Random House. 2016. 384 pages.
ISBN:  0812988906 / 978-0812988901

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

Opening Sentence:  "On the day that he would first meet Thomas Edison, Paul watched a man burn alive in the sky above Broadway."

Favorite Quote:  "Stories reach conclusions, and then they go away. Such is their desperately needed magic ... The properly assembled narrative would guard his mind from the terror or raw memory. Even a true story is a fiction ... It is the comforting tool we use to organize the chaotic world around us into something comprehensible. It is the cognitive machine that separates the wheat of emotion from the chaff of sensation. The real world is overfull with incidents, brimming over with occurrences. In our stories, we disregard most of them until clear reason and motivation emerge. Every story is an invention, a technological device..."

What a fun, roller coaster ride of a book! The Last Days of Night brings to light the history of the race to control the patents and marketing rights to the technology that would bring electricity into common, everyday use. The key players in the race were Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse. Nikola Tesla, J P Morgan, and other big names of the times enter this battleground as well. Even name like Edwin Booth, brother of John Wilkes Booth, play a small role in this story. This so called War of the Currents was a charged, epic battle between two scientists; it was also a battle of economics for controlling the patents meant controlling the marketing rights and the resulting profits.

This book tells the story through the perspective of the young attorney, Paul Cravath, George Westinghouse hires to represent his interest. Even today, a law firm bearing Paul Cravath's name exists, and the Cravath system is used to manage law firm operations. In the 1880s though, Paul Cravath is in his twenties and newly graduated from Columbia Law School. He has no experience and no clients of his own, but he is hired by George Westinghouse to represent him is over 300 lawsuits for over one billion dollars in a battle over electricity against Thomas Edison. Why? It makes you wonder.

What follows is a tale of action, adventure, and intrigue. Political and corporate machinations abound as the two sides battle to control technology, information, and people. The book travels the country, from New York City to the Midwest to the back roads of Tennessee. Things get out of hand when actual violence enters this courtroom and board room battle. A love interest rounds out this flamboyant, melodramatic story with a strong female lead character. Fire, abduction, disappearances, the electric chair, good guys, bad guys. Oh my!

Through it all, Paul does his best for his client and pursues the Westinghouse interests wholeheartedly. He really is the center of this story with everyone else playing a supporting role. The book does have a plot twist, but I guess it early on. It really does not impact my enjoyment of the book for I read to follow Paul Cravath's journey to the discovery. I wait to see his reaction and his actions following the discovery. This may not be not how a history book would paint this picture, but it makes for a great story with a young, hardworking protagonist to cheer for.

An interesting note about the author and the book is that the book has already been optioned for a movie. The author Graham Moore is adapting his own book into a screenplay. He has already won an Academy Award for his screenplay for The Imitation Game. I wonder if this movie will live up to the book and if the screenplay will match his previous one. If I can judge a movie by its book (and I always do!), it should be an exciting show. I hope it does the book justice.


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

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Home

Title:  Home
Author:  Harlan Coben
Publication Information:  Dutton. 2016. 400 pages.
ISBN:  0525955100 / 978-0525955108

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

Opening Sentence:  "The boy who has been missing for ten years steps into the light."

Favorite Quote:  "... stumbling around blind was a big part of his so-called investigations. You don't so much painstakingly search for the needle in the haystack as haphazardly leap into various haystacks, barefoot and naked, and then flail wildly and hope that hey, ouch, there's a needle."

Harlan Coben has published about 30 books. Over 70 million copies of his book in over 43 languages are in print around the world. Home is the first one I have ever read. Harlan Coben has been long on my list of authors to read. I just have never read one of his books before. Clearly, I should have, and clearly, I have been missing out!

Home is about the mystery of two young boys who disappear when they were age six. Now, ten years later, one is found. How? Why? What really happened ten years ago? That is the question. The best thing about the answer of this book ... I do not see that ending coming. I have a number of guesses throughout, but not that. Even when I think the story has reached a conclusion, I am surprised that something more remains, and that something leaves a memorable impact.

The book moves quickly and keeps the suspense going until the very last page.  That, in itself, is enough for a great mystery. The added bonus of this book is that it is as much about the characters as the plot, and I love the characters. Myron Bolitar is the ex-basketball player turned sports agent turned detective; he is a perceptive, tough private investigator and a soft-hearted man who is deeply protective of his family and friends. Win Lockwood is his wealthy, somewhat dangerous, enigmatic best friend; he is equally passionate about and protective of those he loves. Surrounding them are a cast of quirky characters  - Myron's family and business partner, for example - who supposedly appear throughout the series. The interchanges between the characters are funny and fun; at the same time, they manage to convey a comfort level and a caring that is inviting.

The secondary cast of characters - the families of the two missing boys - in this book is equally believable.  The anguish of the parents comes through the pages as do questions no parent should have to face. Would you rather know what happened or hold on and hope for the best? How far would you go to protect your child? Is a resolution - even the worst one - better than a lifetime of not knowing? If you are ever faced with such a situation, what you you do? How would you cope? Would you survive it?

Home is actually book number 11 in his Myron Bolitar series. This comes through clearly in the development of the characters and the relationships among the main characters. Yet, the book still feels complete and whole on its own. I know there is more to be known about what has come before, but I don't feel like I miss a part of the story because I have not read the other books. In fact, the characters and relationships are developed just enough to leave me intrigued. I don't need to know more for this story, but I want to know more because I'm interested. More than likely, this will lead me to the other books in the series.


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

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Real Liddy James

Title:  The Real Liddy James
Author:  Anne-Marie Casey
Publication Information:  G.P. Putnam's Sons. 2016. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0399160221 / 978-0399160226

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

Opening Sentence:  "Liddy knew Mrs. Vandervorst had been crying because she emerged from the corridor bathroom with her sunglasses on."

Favorite Quote:  "I wanted to escape but I didn't know where to go. I am tired, it's true - mentally, physically, every way I can think of. Mostly I'm tired of being me."

This book deals with the age old question faced by so many - the balance between self, family, children, and career. The question has been explored in fiction and nonfiction. Most people, especially women, grapple with it their entire lives. We all know that there is no right answer, only an answer that is right for you at a moment in your life.

The premise suggests an emotionally engaging story. The work-life balance is something so many of us strive for every single day. The urge to escape some days is also a emotion felt by many. Perhaps, a fiction story can shed some new light on this very real-life concern. Unfortunately, this book really does not, and I like the story considerably less that I thought I would.

This book looks at the answer for two completely different women. The title character Liddy James is a divorced mother of two whose career as a New York City divorce attorney has led to success and fame. Rose is Liddy's ex-husband's new partner. The two women take dramatically different approaches to career and to motherhood. Between them is the same partner and the same two young children. The contrast between the two women can perhaps provide different perspectives on the issue of work-life balance.  Perhaps, the book can show the impact their different approaches have on the children. It does not. The even bigger issue is that I find neither character compelling nor engaging. In fact, both come close to the two diametrically opposite cliche answers to this question.

"I don't do guilt." That is the answer Liddy gives for a lot of things in both her personal and professional life. She comes across as unfeeling and self-absorbed. That holds true until one day, it all seems to catch up to her, on national television. Call it life. Call it a mid-life crisis. Call it an epiphany.  It results in a trip to Ireland to recapture family history - a section of the book that is like reading a completely different, unrelated story. Unfortunately, Liddy still comes across as self-absorbed. What follows is a disappointing conclusion. The "real" Liddy James is no more appealing than the the Liddy James introduced at the beginning in the book. Her mid-life self-realization just does not ring true, and, by that point, I am not vested enough in the character to care.

Rose is also a well-educated woman pursuing a career. Her main focus unfortunately seems to be getting and keeping her man. She moves into the home Peter shared with Liddy; she lives with an insecurity about her relationship. Even her job seems to rely on others watching out for her. She is described as whimpering in a professional meeting. Really? Her character reads like a cliche wallflower waiting to be saved.

I find the book's either-or answer to the question of family versus career undermines the choices and compromises so many people make in real life to manage blended families and to find that balance.   The marketing for the book describes it as fun, fearless, and full of heart; unfortunately, I find it to be none of those. How disappointing.


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

Saturday, September 17, 2016

To the Bright Edge of the World

Title:  To the Bright Edge of the World
Author:  Eowyn Ivey
Publication Information: Little, Brown and Company. 2016. 432 pages.
ISBN:  0316242853 / 978-0316242851

Book Source:  Reviewed based on a publisher’s galley received through NetGalley

Opening Sentence:  "I warned you I am a stubborn old man."

Favorite Quote:  "But what makes the questions of cultural loss the most uncomfortable, and difficult for me to address, are the inherent definitions built into it. If a group of people is described as existing in a state of loss, it is necessarily therefore lesser, and those that took greater. It's such a limiting and two-dimensional idea. Who defines wealth and success? How can we say this person is valued less or more, is better or worse, because they are a part of one culture or another, and why would we want to?"

Eowyn Ivey's first book The Snow Child is also set in Alaska but based on a Russian folk tale.  I read it and loved it. Be aware that this book is not the same. It is an entirely different story told in an entirely different manner. As I begin this book, I am not so sure because my expectations are high and I expect a certain kind of story. I read on, still not sure if I like the story or format. I keep reading, and then find myself completely engaged in the characters and the story.

As reader, I know a book gets to me and becomes real when I find myself researching online for the history of fictional characters. They sound so real that they must be real. Eowyn Ivey's latest book manages to do just that. Although the idea of the book is loosely based on an actual Alaskan exploration by Lieutenant Henry Tureman Allen, the story is pure fiction. However, even as I research to write this review, the fact that all of it except for the very basic history is fiction still surprises me.

Alaskan history dates back to the Paleolithic period. By the 1700s, the Russians controlled Alaska. In 1867, US Secretary of State William Seward and the US Senate entered into an agreement to purchase Alaska from Russia for a price of $7.2 million. The purchase became known as Seward's Folly for the unknown, unexplored land was though to be of no value. Then came the exploration of this vast wilderness and its indigenous cultures.

This is where this story begins. The year is 1885. Lieutenant Colonel Allen Forrester is a career army man. His current command is to lead a mission to explore the Wolverine River Valley; the objective is to pave the way for explorers and settlers. Accompanying him is a small team, each with his or her own story including the army man looking to escape the horrors he has been part of, the trapper looking to make his fortune, and the strong, independent native woman who joins their troupe. Along the way, realism mixes with mythology in the people they meet and the adventures they encounter. The other side of the story is the home front. Sophie Forrester is the wife who stays home. Not content with the traditional role many women seem to play in her word, she strikes her own path in her friendships and her chosen pastimes. Through the course of the book, each and every character - human or mythological - becomes so completely real.

That, of course, is a testament to the format and to Eowyn Ivey's writing. The entire story is written as original documents - photographs, maps, catalog entries,  newspaper clippings, letters, and journal entries. This approach is immensely successful in this book. The descriptions of the natural world are breathtaking. The incorporation of mythological creatures and beliefs seems like a continuation of reality and fits in the with the surroundings even as it remains mysterious and unexplained to the end. The human characters are flawed and believable. The plot itself is part history, part action, part myth, and part love story. The beautiful thing is that all these parts come together to form a cohesive and memorable story that feels so completely real.


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

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Leave Me

Title:  Leave Me
Author:  Gayle Forman
Publication Information:  Algonquin Books. 2016. 352 pages.
ISBN:  1616206179 / 978-1616206178

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

Opening Sentence:  "Maribeth Klein was working late, waiting to sign off on the final page proofs of the December issue, when she had a heart attack."

Favorite Quote:  "So this was how it was. People entered your life. Some would stay. Some would not. Some would drift but would return to you."

Maribeth Klein has a heart attack and does not even realize it. Maribeth Klein has a heart attack in her forties and ends up in the hospital for a number of days. Her husband, her two children, her mother, and her friends are frantic and trying to take care of her. Then, Maribeth Klein comes home, and life goes on. Everyone reverts back to regularly scheduled life, and Maribeth finds herself as everyone's caretaker even as she is attempting to recover.

Sound familiar? So far, this sounds like a scenario many readers can understand and relate to. Many people find themselves being take for granted by those who love them the most. Many people find themselves in that caretaker role with sometimes no one to take care of them and sometimes with no one thinking that they need taking care of. "Would it surprise you to learn that one of the top fantasies for women is a prolonged hospital stay?"

For a while, Maribeth manages, and then one day, she just leaves. She walks out without letting anyone know where she is going or when or even if she will be back. Not her husband. Not her young children. Not her mother. Not her friends.

This scenario raises intriguing questions. What does it take for someone to walk away from a family? What does it take for a mother to walk away from two young children? What are the repercussions of walking away? What becomes of the person who leaves? What becomes of those she leaves behind? I look forward to the answers.

However, this is where the book takes a left turn in a completely different direction. First, suspend disbelief a little and imagine that Maribeth has independent resources to leave with a stack of cash that enables her to essentially disappear. Second, where does Maribeth go to get away from it all? It's not a retreat or a vacation or a grand adventure as one might think.

Maribeth gets on a bus to another town like hers. Once in Pittsburgh, she sets up an entire new life, along with new friendships and relationships and settles into a daily life routine. She leaves her family and seemingly calmly starts a new life. It begs two questions. Really? Why?

A lot of the book becomes about the question of why, which leads to unresolved issues that Maribeth has to deal with from other parts of her life. Those unresolved questions could form the basis of an entire book all on their own, but are too quickly and too easily reconciled here for the book to develop depth.

Some of the story remains about her husband and children, but only some. The book never does come back to answer the questions posed by the original scenario. The book ends in an oversimplified, unrealistic way. It is just way too easy.

The shift in focus brings plot lines to this book that I do not expect and that take it far from the original premise. It is still an entertaining book in a summer beach read kind of way, but leaves me disappointed for it is not the book I expect from the description.


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

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Fates and Traitors

Title:  Fates and Traitors:  A Novel of John Wilkes Booth
Publication Information:  Dutton. 2016. 400 pages.
ISBN:  0525954309 / 978-0525954309

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

Opening Sentence:  "A sound in the darkness outside the barn - a furtive whisper, the careless snap of a dry twig underfoot - woke him from a fitful doze."

Favorite Quote:  "Let history decide what to make of the misguided, vengeful man who had killed a great and noble president. That was not the man she had known and loved. She had already said all she ever intended to say about the assassin John Wilkes Booth."

From Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar, Act II, Scene III:

There is but one mind in all these men, and it is bent against Caesar.
If thou beest not immortal, look about you.
Security gives way to conspiracy.
The mighty gods defend thee!
Thy lover,
Artemidorus”
Here will I stand till Caesar pass along,
And as a suitor will I give him this.
My heart laments that virtue cannot live
Out of the teeth of emulation.
If thou read this, O Caesar, thou mayst live.
If not, the Fates with traitors do contrive.

These lines are an appropriate epithet for the story of John Wilkes Booth, both for his actions and for his career as a Shakespearean actor. Abraham Lincoln is, of course, the Caesar of this story, and John Wilkes Booth, the traitor who kills him.

This book tells the fictionalized story of John Wilkes Booth through the stories of the women who loved him. Mary Ann Holmes, his mother. Asia Booth Clark, his sister. Lucy, the young woman who falls in love with him. Mary Surratt, the woman who believes in his cause and becomes part of his plot to assassinate President Lincoln.

This is not a story of suspense, for history tells us both of his actions and of the consequences of those actions for him. The book begins at the end with John's own view that he dies not as a convict surrounded by law but as a hero serving his country.

Beyond that glimpse, it is only through the perspective of these four women that there emerges a portrait of the man - son, brother, lover, and conspirator. Mary Holmes speaks of the challenges of her life and of her vision that predicts a future when her son is so very young. Asia's perspective is of her childhood playmate and confidante and of the rivalry between John and his brothers. Lucy's is the story of the innocence of young love despite the social inappropriateness of the match and the distancing of a political family from any hint of scandal. Mary Surratt's story is the one only of the four which agrees with the social and political views that lead John Wilkes Booth to his crime; her is also the one that has by far the more dramatic conclusion.

Like Jennifer Chiaverini's book Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker, this book tells a story not from the perspective of the main players in the history but rather through the eyes of those encompassing the periphery. I would assume that these characters are easier to fictionalize, thereby enabling the story to be a more personal one. Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker errs more on the side of history, but this book is definitely more about the story and the relationships. The book feels a bit long and verbose at times, but it is an engaging one. Ultimately, this book is a story of these four women who love a man despite his faults and of their memories not of a traitor but of a son, a brother, and a lover.


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

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Cook Korean!

Title:  Cook Korean!
Author:  Robin Ha
Publication Information:  Ten Speed Press. 2016. 176 pages.
ISBN:  1607748878 / 978-1607748878

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

Opening Sentence:  "My mom was a busy working mom but she always made sure that I ate healthy homemade meals."

Favorite Quote:  "Don't be afraid to fail on the first try! Sometimes even the package directions are not perfect. Try a few recipes to find the one you like!"

My introduction to Korean food comes through a Korean friend and through food at local restaurants. I am experienced in the kitchen and enjoying cooking and trying foods from different cultures. I do not cook Korean food often, but I am learning to incorporate the flavors and techniques through books like Koreatown and this one.

The author Robin Ma was born in Korea and moved to the United States at age fourteen. Her educational background is in the arts. Her food experience comes from her cultural heritage and her mother. Make sure you read that story in the acknowledgements section! She has documented these experiences on her food blog. The copyright on this book in fact states that "Many of these recipes appeared in an earlier format on the author's blog Banchan in 2 Pages." This background gives the book a very casual, conversational tone and a homey feel which is enjoyable just to read.

A comic book makes everything more fun and more approachable, even food it seems. One of my concerns with Koreatown was its busy layout and organization. This book is just as busy in its layout, if not more so. However, by introducing it as a comic book, it sets the expectation. I expect the illustrations and the nature of its layout. So, it works.

The book does have two issues with usability. First, the print version is a trade paperback. As such, it does not lay flat or stay open to a particular page without being weighted down. That makes it difficult to put on a counter and use to follow a recipe. Second, the comic book format means that the steps in the directions are not numbered or laid out in sequential paragraphs. Dotted lines and arrows indicate the sequence, but I will likely number the steps in my copy to make it easier to follow.

The book is organized into food groups as a typical cookbook would be:  Kimchi and picked, vegetable side dishes, meat and poultry, seafood, soups and stews, porridges, noodles and rice cakes, snacks and street food, cocktails and anju (snacks that accompany alcohol), and Korean fusion.  A detailed table of contents provides a list of recipes with English and Korean (phonetically written in English) titles. Since most recipe titles include the main ingredients, recipes are easy to find. The book also includes an index, but I find the table of contents easier to use.

Don't let the comic book approach fool you. This is a serious cookbook. It only has about 70 recipes, but does pack in a lot of information. It includes personal stories, some Korean food history, descriptions, definitions, and, of course, recipes. For those not familiar with Korean food, the book also contains about a ten page section on key ingredients, the contents of a Korean fridge and pantry, a meal guide, and some background on Korean food by region. Each recipe also includes tips and definitions set apart by the colors of the illustrations. Again, the conversational tone, the illustrations, the colors, and the format make the food and the unfamiliar ingredients more approachable. Having read Robin Ha's stories, I look forward to incorporating her flavors in my cooking.


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Friday, September 9, 2016

This Too Shall Pass

Title:  This Too Shall Pass
Author:  Milena Busquets
Publication Information:  Hogarth. 2015 (original). 2016 (translation). 176 pages.
ISBN:  1101903708 / 978-1101903704

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

Opening Sentence:  "For some stranger reason, I never considered what it would be like to be forty."

Favorite Quote:  "There's a howling deep inside that usually leaves me well enough alone by day, but at night, when I lie in bed and try to sleep, it rouses and begins snuffling around like an angry cat, scratching my chest, tightening my jaw, hammering at my temples. Sometimes, to appease it, I open my mouth and pretend to scream in silence, but I'm never able to fool it, it stays there, frenzied, trying to break me."

This Too Shall Pass is a book about grief and about learning to live with a loss of a loved one. The death of her mother leaves Blanca unmoored in life and shaken by grief. Such a loss is also the topic of beautiful memoirs such as Wild by Cheryl Strayed and H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald. This story is a fictional one.

For such a short book, this story has a lot of characters, and I find myself having a difficult time keeping them straight. Children. Best friends. Boyfriends of best friends. Ex-husbands. Married lover. Friends along the road. All of these characters become a part of Blanca's healing process. After a while, I lose track of the characters especially Blanca's men; there are a lot of them! After a while, I stop even trying because what is important to this story is Blanca and her reactions, not the characters themselves.

Grief and how each of us deals with it is uniquely individual. In this book, Blanca's coping mechanism is to surround herself with family and friends at her inherited estate in the coastal town of Cadaques, Spain, complete with the boat in the water and the serve staff. Grief is grief regardless of your economic status, but the rich girl lifestyle seems to belie some of the complaints Blanca makes through this book.

That leads the other issue of this book. Blanca is not a particularly likable character. Her grief is real, but her outlook, reactions, and actions are all about Blanca. Her coping mechanism also includes a lot of drinking, drugs, and sex.  The most touching part of the book is the epilogue in which this first person narrative directly addresses the grief that is at the heart of it. The rest of the book is more about the drinking, the drugs, and the sex. Interestingly, Wild by Cheryl Strayed also depicts these outlets as part of Cheryl's story. However, it is a small part. That memoir moves forward; this fictional story stays there, which unfortunately makes it not my kind of story.

An unlikable main character in unsavory situations does not automatically make for an unlikable book. Unfortunately, in this case, the first person narrative makes this impression all the stronger because Blanca is all about Blanca. After a while, I just don't want to read her perspective any more.

The book does have moments in which the writing shines; mostly, it is the moments like the epilogue in which Blanca speaks about (almost to) her mother. These monologues capture her grief and the complexities of a mother-daughter relationship. The relationship is never fully explored, but rather hinted at through these moments in the book. Those are the pieces I wish were more prevalent in the book not Blanca's other exploits

As far as the rest, I do wonder if this book loses something in the translation; in other words, are there cultural nuances that simply don't translate and as such make the story less that what it is?


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Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Love from Boy

Title:  Love from Boy:  Roald Dahl's Letters to His Mother
Author:  Donald Sturrock (editor)
Publication Information:  Blue Rider Press. 2016. 336 pages.
ISBN:  039916846X / 978-0399168468

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

Opening Sentence:  "Roald Dahl is widely acknowledged as one of the very greatest children's writers."

Favorite Quote:  "I won't write often. Cables and telephone are better."

James and the Giant Peach. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Matilda. Fantastic Mr Fox. The BFG. These are some of the stories of my childhood. I grew up reading these stories. These are also the stories of my "parenthood" as I share them with my own children. Together, we have read the books, watched the movies, attended the shows, and then read the books again and again.

However, I know very little about the author Roald Dahl. So, I am delighted to have the opportunity came to learn about his life in his own words. From the 1920s as a schoolboy to his mother's death in the 1960s, Roald Dahl wrote his mother hundreds of letters. She kept them all, letters and envelopes.

This book is the compilation of these letters. These are a unique perspective on a life and a picture of a young man growing into a man. "Sofie Magdalene was Roald's first audience, but she was also his unacknowledged inspiration to become a writer. One might say Roald's own career as a storyteller begins in these letters."

One note about the book format. The book includes photographs with caption and scanned images of letters and envelopes. For the most part, however, the letters have been transcribed and misspellings corrected for readability "because while, in small doses,  his spelling mistakes can be amusing, over the span go a long book such as this, they can become irritating too." This editorial decision makes the book considerably easier to read.

The book is structured into eight sections, with each section accompanied by editorial notes about the salient details of Roald Dahl's life during that time period. Each section covers about two to four years from 1920s to the 1940s. The final section covers 1946 - 1965; the title "I won't write often" explains the length of time.

The letters begin with a schoolboy's letters home. So many begin with either a thank you to his mother for care packages or an apology for not writing. The youth of the writer comes through in the tone of the letters and the topics he deems letter-worthy. Roald Dahl's school experiences were not always happy ones. Some letters capture the seriousness of this time, but many are sure to leave you smiling. The letters end with a father writing of concerns about his wife and children and a son writing of concerns about his mother.  They speak of illnesses, injuries, and other pragmatic points of life. In between are letters on his work, his travel, his role as a pilot during World War II, and his sojourn in the United States.

The epistolary format is fascinating because it is such a personal reflection of thoughts. At the same time, the format means this is a one-sided conversation.  The editor's commentary provides the context and background for the letters. However, none of Sofie Magdalene's letters have ever been found. So, her side of the conversation will unfortunately never be heard.

What a lucky mother to have a child who was such a prolific, detailed correspondent! What a lucky son to have the inspiration of his mother! What lucky readers that the correspondence was preserved and is now shared.


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

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Little Nothing

Title:  Little Nothing
Author:  Marisa Silver
Publication Information:  Blue Rider Press. 2016. 352 pages.
ISBN:  0399167927 / 978-0399167928

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

Opening Sentence:  "'redstavte si kvetini!' the midwife yells, her voice reading the baby as warped and concave sounds."

Favorite Quote:  "... sometimes you can spend a lot of sorrow trying to change things for the better when what was first was best. It's only that you were too foolish to realize it."

I am not entirely sure what this book was about. I do know that it's one of the oddest books I have read in quite a while. The interpretation of the book, I suppose differs based on how from which perspective you analyze it.

In its entirety, the story seems a retelling of an old folk tale to mythological story. Despite the indications, there is no note that the book is a retelling of a old tale. "In an unnamed country at the beginning of the last century..." So begins the description of the book. This description is reminiscent of the beginnings of a fairy tale. "Once upon a time in a land far way..." The story is based on a childless couple who would do anything for a child; this too is a beginning for many a fairy tale. Warranted, this book is less a fairy tale and more a tale of horror with wolves, werewolves, humans who are monsters, and so-called monsters who are so very human.

Pavla is one of the two main characters of the book; this book is the story of her life. She is born to parents who have longed for a child, enough to seek gypsy tonics and prescription as an intervention and means to get pregnant. Pavla is born a dwarf in a place and at a time where that is viewed unfortunately as a deformity, a curse, something to be cured, and even something to be feared. In some ways, Pavla's issue throughout her life is one which many women face - the issue of being defined by and judged by physical appearances. Whether beautiful or seemingly monstrous, Pavla is haunted by the world's perceptions of her physical nature. Her survival throughout depends on her ability to transform herself and escape her current situation. In this sense, the book could be interpreted as commentary on the definition of beauty and the views that confine women to certain stereotypes. However, Pavla's transformations are too fantastic, too abrupt, and too far removed from reality for a "real" interpretation to come through.

Danilo is the man who has loved Pavla since the day he meets her. He ends up responsible for one of Pavla's transformations in a horrific way, but he loves her still. His love ends up a protective one as Pavla's transformations continue. Through it all, Danilo himself transforms from a meek, scared boy into a strong man.

I love the premise of the book - all the premises of the book. A fairy tale or folk tale retold. A woman who transforms herself throughout her life. A man who is devoted in his love. Unfortunately, despite all that, I do not enjoy the book. First, I can't decide if it's a fairly injected into reality or reality inserted into a fairy tale. Either way, unfortunately, it does not work for me. The characters are just a little bit too real to suspend disbelief and enjoy the fantasy, and the story is too far removed from reality for it to be believable. Second, the book includes a lot of unpleasant physical details, from its beginning descriptions of a woman cursing her way through labor pains to descriptions of body parts and body fluids. The descriptions are just unpleasant to read.  Third, the transitions in the book are abrupt. I find myself reading and trying to figure out what happened and then having to go back and reread a few pages once I understand. The abruptness does not add to the story; it just makes the book more challenging to read. Finally, even the ending brings no resolution, just an ending. At the end, I am left still wondering what happened and why. I am left not knowing quite what to make of this book.


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Friday, September 2, 2016

The Story of a Brief Marriage

Title:  The Story of a Brief Marriage
Author:  Anuk Arudpragasam
Publication Information:  Flatiron Books. 2016. 208 pages.
ISBN:  1250072409 / 978-1250072405

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

Opening Sentence:  "Most children have two whole legs and two whole arms but this little six-year-old that Dinesh was carrying had already lost one leg, the right one from the lower thigh down, and was not about to lose his right arm."

Favorite Quote:  "what dying meant there was no way he could really know of course, it was a subject he was not in a position to think about clearly. It depended probably on what living means, and though he had been alive for some time it was difficult to remember whether it meant being together with other humans, or being alone with himself above all."

Eerie. Brutal. Devastating. Quiet. Hypnotic. Intensely physical. Philosophical. Hyper-aware. All these words describe this brief story of a brief marriage. You know a book is going to be a tough read when the first couple of pages describe an amputation on a child performed by a doctor with a kitchen knife and with no anesthesia. Not because of a lack of caring, but because that is the best he has to offer given the circumstances.

The dead and the injured are the victims of a bloody civil war in Sri Lanka, as also described in Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera.  One side of the war wants to conscript anyone - man, woman, or child - remotely capable of fighting. The other side conducts bombing after bombing to root out rebellion. Those who wish just to live their lives are caught between the two, with nowhere left to go. Equal danger comes from both sides of the conflicts. The refugees band together, burying their dead, trying to care for the injured, and constantly moving to avoid annihilation.

Dinesh is one of these refugees. He is alone, having lost his entire family to the conflict. He walks around near starvation and with scars that cannot be seen. One day, he is approached by a man who wishes Dinesh to marry his daughter. Why? Perhaps to relieve a father's concern, perhaps to help a daughther's survival, perhaps because extreme circumstances create extreme choices. For perhaps all the same reasons and for the thought of a human connection once again, Dinesh agrees to marry Ganga. So begins this brief marriage. Note the very specific use of the word brief.

Though married, this book is Dinesh's world and his story. Dinesh lives where the only constant in his life is death. He lives with the awareness that he too may die at any moment. One bombing. One stray bullet. One step in the wrong direction. His life can end. This creates in him a hyper-awareness of even the most ordinary physical thoughts and sensations for even the most mundane become precious if you stand to lose them.

This focus leads to the only thing that keeps this from a being a five star book for me. It definitely has an "eeewwww" and grossness factor. Many pages of a rather brief book are spent on described the most base of human functions including bowel movements and baths. Blood and body parts are a big part of this book. If you are squeamish, this may not be the book for you. The use of these seems deliberate and is explained. "All his life he'd been indifferent to these things but it was impossible now to feel this way, for they had been there with him through everything, through his whole life, and were now about to leave for good." In other words, even the most unappealing things take on substance and value when we stand to lose them. However, I do leave the book wishing that message was conveyed a different way.

The book is primarily descriptive in nature, with Dinesh's focus on his own physical body and on the physical world around him - his own skin, the sand, the overturned boat, the blood and gore of those injured, and even Ganga's physical presence. The writing is wonderfully detailed in these physical descriptions. The book is not a first person narrative, but as a reader, I see the world through Dinesh's eyes. The view is a haunting one, and this bleak book about death leaves me with a reminder of how precious life is and of how much we take for granted.


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