Monday, September 18, 2017

The Underground River

Title:  The Underground River
Author:  Martha Conway
Publication Information:  Touchstone. 2017. 352 pages.
ISBN:  1501160206 / 978-1501160202

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

Opening Sentence:  "When the steamboat Moselle blew apart just off its Cincinnati landing, I was sitting below deck in the ladies' cabin, sewing tea leaves into little muslin bags and plotting revenge on my cousin Comfort for laughing at me during dinner."

Favorite Quote:  "We want to believe a story is true. We use our imagination to convince ourselves. We can't help it."

Much history has been written of the underground railroad, an informal networks of home and individuals that provided a path for those escaping slavery in the United States. So, the premise of this book about following a similar path on the "underground river" in the 1800s intrigues me.

History also tells of numerous, courageous abolitionists who risk everything for their beliefs that slavery always has been and always will be wrong. The premise of this book about a woman who becomes a coerced helper in this endeavor intrigues me. May gets involved in the underground journey because she has a debt to pay; she have never been exposed much to or thought much about the horrible institution of slavery. The idea of following on her journey of learning and her ultimate belief in what she is doing intrigues me. The potential for a story of an awakening intrigues me.

All of this, of course, is from the book description. That description and the cover are what lead me to pick up this book. Unfortunately, the book does not deliver what I expect, and I end the book disappointed. Based on my expectations, I am not the reader for this book.

Primarily, I expect a story of slavery - those who wish to perpetuate it, those who hope to escape it, and those who help along the way. That story is in the book, but it does not enter the book until almost half way through. The first half of the book is about a riverboat theater and the cast of characters who call it home. There is a brewing love story, descriptions of the riverboat and theater cultures, and the stories of relationships and conflicts that arise living in such close quarters.

The story centers around May, who joins the riverboat theater after she is essentially abandoned by her cousin Comfort Vertue (yes, that is the name). The key character trait stressed about May is, "I can be very literal ... when I talk ... I say what I think." This is further elaborated into the fact that May thinks herself incapable of lying. This, of course, is put to the test as she gets involved in the underground river. The only issue is that this trait is stressed over and over again. It is stressed not through actions, but essentially repeated many times over in words. After while, my reaction is that I get it. May is literal. Move on. Tell me something else.

That leads to my third issue in the book. It tells a story. That's what a book is supposed to do, right? Yes, up to a point. However, the books that pull me in are the ones that don't seem to tell the story. Rather, the characters appear to be living the story. This book, for me, never reaches that point. Hence, I am never fully engaged in the characters or the plot. That, to me, is disappointing for a book whose premise holds such promise.


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Thursday, September 14, 2017

The List

Title:  The List
Author:  Patricia Forde
Publication Information:  Sourcebooks. 2017. 336 pages.
ISBN:  1492647969 / 978-1492647966

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

Opening Sentence:  "Smith Fearful was a scavenger."

Favorite Quote:  "Without words, we will be imprisoned in the here and now forever ... The here and now is only the smallest part of who were are. Each of us is all that we have been, all our stories, all that we could be."

The List is a middle grade book that is based on the interesting premise that if you control people's ability to communicate, you control their actions and hence their impact on the world. Limits communication and you limit an individual's ability to influence their environment.

The List is set in a post-apocalyptic, dystopian world where man's abuse of Earth has caused The Melting, a literal melting of the polar ice caps. One man, Noa, saw it coming and successfully built a place called the Ark. The names in this book are not the most creative ones, but perhaps that is because it is geared towards a younger audience, and more obvious connections influence comprehension.

Noa seeks to create a world - to save the world - but according to his rules. Control and force are the source of his power. A key tenet of the Ark is to limit communication. Music and the arts have been forbidden. Language itself is limited to, as you might guess from the title, a list. The list is about 500 words but getting shorter by Noa's decree. Certain professions have additional words specific to their work, but those are to be used only by specific people and in specific circumstances. Beyond that, words are whittled down to what Noa considers the essentials.

Benjamin is the wordsmith of the Ark. His job is to collect errant words and be the keeper of the list. Letter (makes me think letter?) is his twelve year old apprentice. As often happens in such books, her childhood has a tragic story. Sadly, in his word searching, Benjamin disappears, and Letta becomes the official wordsmith.


Of course, she learns that things are not always what they seem in the Ark, and that the individual viewed as the savior of this community may have other plans. Conflict between the two sides persists.  Note that the book does have scenes of violence and some descriptions of torture. Parents and teachers should determine its appropriateness for their middle grade audience.

As a adult reading the book, the story has two competing forces - the power and love of language and the environmental statement on the destruction of Earth by man. It is the environmental message that is at the heart of this book. Language is a means to control man towards Noa's environmental goals. Interestingly, for a book with a strong environmental message, the story includes no real if age-appropriate scientific information. Only one character is depicted as a scientist, and he exists on the periphery of the Ark society.

In fact, in a story of the past, Benjamin tells Letta about how "they [scientists] were seen as the enemy, the people who had opposed the Green Warriors before the Melting. There was no place for them in Ark." It is unclear how to balance that with the fact that current science is pointing out the dangers of man's abuse of earth. It is, in fact, the scientists leading the charge for environmental protection, and others who undermine science. On that point, the story may be confusing for a young audience. Which side is science on?

What I do leave the book with is the love and necessity of language. I can't imagine limiting it to a list. I can, however, imagine being a wordsmith whose life's work is to gather words.


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Monday, September 11, 2017

The Readymade Thief

Title:  The Readymade Thief
Author:  Augustus Rose
Publication Information:  Viking. 2017. 384 pages.
ISBN:  0735221839 / 978-0735221833

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

Opening Sentence:  "To make your way to the DePaul Aquarium and Museum of Natural History, on Petty Island in the middle of the Delaware River, you can drive through New Jersey and over the only bridge."

Favorite Quote:  "What do you do when the one true thing in your life turns out to be a lie?"

The story of the thief begins in the middle. Someone from the past has found her, and she does not want to be found. Lee Cuddy is only seventeen years old and has already been through a lot in her life. She is living on the periphery of society, under the radar, making do as best as she can.

There is a lot going on in this book. Shoplifting. Teenage angst. Child abuse. Homeless teenagers. Criminal cults. Murder. Physics theories. Ancient codes embedded in art work. Internet hackers. Sex trade. Drugs. Corruption. Love story. Teenage pregnancy. Those are just the things I remember.

It makes for an entertaining read up to a point. After a while, too much becomes just that. Too much. Following Lee's story is like jumping from one thing to the next to the next to the next. The fact that the book starts in the middle adds to that feeling because the story both moves forward and fills in the back story. So, the jumps occur in all directions. Oddly, even with all that encapsulated in one book, the book is at times slow moving. Overall, I keep thinking that less may have been more in this situation.

The connections in Lee's story are also at times unbelievable. Chance plays a big factor. People in Lee's seem either really really evil towards her or really really nice. Even some people who are complete strangers help her in a way that is not entirely believable. Even when they suffer for it, they continue to help. Yes, people like that exist in the world. However, the characters in this book are either one extreme or the other, and that is not realistic.

The scientific bent and the connection to the art world in this book comes through the works of Marcel Duchamp, a French artist. The book features the Société Anonyme as the name of a group. Duchamp with others started a society by that name for the promotion, exhibit, and collection of art. His piece, The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (also known as The Large Glass), is the work around which this story centers. Interestingly, Duchamp also had a series of works knows as the Readymades, found objects which he chose to collect and exhibit as art. That connection is not followed in the book, but makes for a possible reason for the title.

The connection to the art world has led to a comparison of this book to Dan Brown's books. For me, that comparison does a disservice to this book. The book does feature Marcel Duchamp's art works, but there is so much else going on that it becomes just a part of the story not the heart of the story as it is with Dan Brown's books. In addition, while the book itself is atmospheric and descriptive, that descriptive style does not extend to the works of art being discussed. In fact, having read the book, I can visualize the fictional places and events described but cannot visualize the real art pieces. I enjoyed learning about the work through the research I did while reading.

The imaginative and colorful descriptions of the places in the book are my favorite part. An abandoned museum. Underground tunnels that wind their way through the city. A building with a clown's head. A building called the Crystal Castle. The vivid descriptions create a suitably creepy and dark atmosphere that underlies this story and remains the most memorable part of the writing.


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Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Dying Game

Title:  The Dying Game
Author:  Asa Avdic
Publication Information:  Penguin Books. 2017. 288 pages.
ISBN:  0143131796 / 978-0143131793

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

Opening Sentence:  "One afternoon, the unit secretary came into my office."

Favorite Quote:  "Wink murder ... It goes like this:  One person is randomly chosen as a murderer and another is the detective. The other players, the victims, know who the detective is, but they don't know the murderer. Then everyone walks around the room. The murderer kills people by discreetly winking at them. When someone gets blinked at, they fall down dead. When the detective thinks he knows who the murderer is, he accuses the suspect. If the detective is right, he wins; if not, the murderer wins."

The year is 2037, and the world is not the one we know. Most of Europe operates under a benignly named but strictly controlled Union of Friendship. The game is real except it is not really a game. The rules are real except that each person thinks they are playing different game, and each person is given a different set of rules.

The reader knows the role Anna Francis plays and the rules she is given. What the actual goal of this project is keeps me wondering throughout the book. I guess at where it is going but do not guess correctly as to how. The "how" is the roller coaster ride of this book which the reader takes right along with Anna Francis.

Anna Francis knows only her work. Anna's mother is raising Anna's daughter; a father is not in the picture. A secret - a disaster both personal and professional from Anna's perspective - in her past has brought her from the forefront of major projects to a bureaucratic office job in Stockholm. Anna is given the "opportunity" to take on a new project to help with the recruitment of a new member for the RAN project. The book never explains what the RAN project is except to imply that the project is beyond top secret, and its members are a very elite group. Anna is asked to give a few days of her life to observe the candidates for this position as they are placed in a field test on the remote, secluded island of Isola.

Oh, and, she will be presumed dead for most of those days. That is indeed the test as Anna understands it. The candidates are to be led to believe that Anna has been murdered by one of them. With no way on to or off the island, how will that impact those who remain. The objective is to see how the individuals handle that situation. Anna is given an entire secret realm underneath and throughout the house from which to observe and report. That is the test. Or is it?

Once Anna is on the island, nothing is quite as she envisioned. Someone completely unexpected from Anna's past is part of this situation. Anna's "death" is staged as planned, but then events don't go quite as Anna or the other individuals on the island have been led to expect. New relationships are formed. Old relationships are rekindled. People appear to die. People disappear. Storms hit the island. Communication is cut off. Transportation is cutoff. The scenario is perhaps not as controlled as it was put forth by the project coordinators. Or is it?

Different perspectives throughout the book fill in some holes in the narrative, but the ending of the book leaves loose ends. What is the RAN project? What is the story of the man from Anna's past? What completely is Anna's story? What happens next? This last question arises not because the story feels incomplete but because Anna's character becomes real and I want to know. This last question is what warrants the success of this storytelling. I am left wondering what happens next and questioning if sequel will come to explain more. I want to know.


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Saturday, September 9, 2017

The Address

Title:  The Address
Author:  Fiona Davis
Publication Information:  Dutton. 2017. 368 pages.
ISBN:  152474199X / 78-1524741990

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 sight of a child teetering on the window ledge of room 510 turned Sara's world upside down."

Favorite Quote:  "Sometimes we don't know the answer."

Two women. Two time period. One city. One beautiful old building. A past that dreams of a future. A present that looks to the past for answers. A host of intrigue and secrets that connects all of it. A book that tells both stories in alternating sections, winding them closer and closer together until by the end, all the connections are revealed, and the story of the past ends, and the story of the present finds a path forward. This is structure used by many books including Fiona Davis's book The Dollhouse, and it usually makes for an entertaining story.

In this book, the past is Sara Smythe in the 1880s. She works in a London hotel and cares for her ill mother. Life seems to hold no further prospects. A chance encounter offers her the opportunity to start a new life in the United States. She comes to New York, starts over, and her life goes in a direction she could never have imagined.

The story of the present is Bailey Camden in 1984. She is recovering party girl just out of rehab. Her issues have cost her friends and her job. Life seems to hold very few prospects. Her wealthy cousin Melinda's bounty offers her a chance to start over. She takes it, and it puts her on a path she could never have imagined.

See the parallels yet?

What first draws the two stories together is the location. Located at the corner of 72nd Street and Central Park West in Manhattan, the Dakota is a co-op apartment building considered one of New York's best addresses. In fact, it was the once home to John Lennon and the location of his death. However, when it was built in 1884, it was purposefully named The Dakota because its location was considered as remote to the main sections of Manhattan as the far-off Dakota Territories.

Sara comes to the Dakota in 1884 when the project architect Theodore Camden offers her a job at the Dakota. Theodore Camden is also Melinda and Bailey's grandfather. Melinda is descended from the children Theodore Camden claimed with his wife. Bailey is the daughter of a child Theodore and his wife raised. The Camden estate belongs to the direct descendants, leaving Bailey with the name but no inheritance.

The story continues to weave back and forth as Sara sets up the new building, and Bailey works on a project to remodel one of the units. Secondary characters and romances enter in the picture. Underlying it all is the history and grandeur of the building itself. Through Sara's eyes, the reader sees the initial construction and decor, and through Bailey's eyes, the reader witnesses the attempts to preserve that history and the destruction of that initial vision in the name of modernization.

As with most books such as this one, one time period calls to me more. In this case, Sara's story is the more compelling one, given the plot and the historical richness of the time period. Overall the book is an entertaining story and an intriguing look inside a landmark building.


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Friday, September 8, 2017

Hum if You Don't Know the Words

Title:  Hum if You Don't Know the Words
Author:  Bianca Marais
Publication Information:  G.P. Putnam's Sons. 2017. 432 pages.
ISBN:  0399575065 / 978-0399575068

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 joined up the last two lines of the hopscotch grid and wrote a big '10' in top square."

Favorite Quote:  "What greater gift can you give another than to say:  I see you, I hear you, and you are not alone?"

A mother wonders how to keep her daughter safe. A daughter wonders if, with her parents gone, safety is ever possible. Beauty and Robin - a woman and a girl - find their lives forever altered in the Soweto Uprising in 1976 in Johannesburg, South Africa.

The history that is the basis of this book is as follows. Thousands of Black South African students rose in protests over a decree that introduced Afrikaans as a language of instruction in Soweto school. The language, associated with apartheid, has been termed by Desmond Tutu as "the language of the oppressor." Johannesburg police responded with force. Police released the death count at 200, but most reports set the number much higher.

In this book, Beauty Mbali is Xhosa woman from a rural village in Transkei. She is educated, a teacher herself, and a single parent after the death of her husband in the mines. She comes to Johannesburg in search her seventeen year old daughter, who is a student in Johannesburg. Beauty learns that Nomsa is one of the leaders in the uprising and is now missing. Beauty's one instinct as a mother is to bring her daughter home to safety.

Robin is a nine-year old white girl. She lives a privileged life in Johannesburg with her parents. Her father is an official in the mines. Robin's parents leave for an evening out with friends. The next news is that protesters have killed them both. Robin is packed of to live with her aunt, who is unmarried, sometimes irresponsible, and in a career that does not lend itself to having a child in her home.

In the aftermath, the stories of Beauty and Robin meet and interweave. Told through their alternating perspectives, the book presents two very different images of the same world - one facing the harsh reality and one dealing with the harsh reality with the innocence and self-centered nature of a child. The book highlights Beauty's statement, "I want her to understand that two men can be in the exact same place doing the exact same things while wearing the exact same clothes and yet they can still be worlds apart." She makes the statement about people living in a world of apartheid and discrimination, but it holds true for all of life's experiences.

Beauty and Robin's stories are one of differences of race. Through secondary characters, the book also introduces prejudice and discrimination because of religion and sexual orientation. While absolutely real, the story lines are unnecessary to this book.

Beauty and Robin's perspectives are also those of an adult and a child. As the book progresses and particularly at the end, the events and actions attributed to the child seem too far-fetched to seem real in the volatile, violent environment. While I completely follow the story, towards the end, it loses the sense of reality that permeates the rest of the book. However, it remains a moving and touching story and highlights the point once again that in a war, innocent victims exist on all sides of the conflict.


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Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Asylum of Dr. Calgari

Title:  The Asylum of Dr. Calgari
Author:  James Morrow
Publication Information:  Tachyon Publications. 2017. 192 pages.
ISBN:  1616962658 / 978-1616962654

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

Opening Sentence:  "From its birth during the Age of Reason until its disappearance following the Treaty of Versailles, the tiny principality of Weizenstaat lay along the swampy seam between the German Empire and the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg like an embolism lodged in an artery."

Favorite Quote:  "You will teach me what you know of art, and I shall teach what I know of badness ... Madness? ... That, too."

The book's protagonist, Francis Wyndham, is an American from Philadelphia. He is also an aspiring painter, who comes to Europe in the hopes of apprenticing himself to one of the great painters, perhaps Pablo Picasso. Things do not work out as he hopes. He finds himself in dire straits. A chance meeting leads to a job as an art instructor at insane asylum run by Alessandro Caligari.

Dr. Caligari's asylum is in Europe. The year is 1914. That, of course, means war. The War. World War I. The events are in motion. Lines have been drawn. Sides have been chosen. And, then, there are the profiteers. Sometimes, ideology is a factor, but, more often than not, the profiteers are the ones who play both sides for profit and personal game. Everything is for sale to the highest bidder regardless of the impact on the world.

What, you might ask, does an insane asylum and an American painter have to do with the war? That is the crux of the book. For, Dr. Caligari is a profiteer. He has come up with a weapon that will make him rich and direct the course of the war. Francis Wyndham finds himself in the unlikely position of being the one who stands in Dr. Caligari's  way. He has help from an asylum inmate, and together they set out to foil the doctor's plan. Oddly, embedded in the middle of this mayhem is a love story and a tribute to the impact of art on its viewer. Perhaps, beauty, or in this case horror, is in the eye of the beholder.

This story is short - more novella than novel. It is also so odd that I began do research the story and the author. What I found makes the whole thing even more interesting. This novella is based on on a 1920s silent horror film from Germany titled Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Calgary). The movie is about a hypnotist who uses a sleep-walking man to commit murder. The movie itself is based on the creators' experiences in World War I. The hypnotist symbolized the German government, and the sleep-walking man, the soldiers trained to kill. The book brings the message more literally with its setting in the War and its weapon of mass destruction.

Bizarre is the word that comes to mind for this book. Not that that is unexpected given the title and the cover. The book "blurb" states, "The Asylum of Dr. Caligari is a timely tale that is by turns funny and erotic, tender and bayonet-sharp―but ultimately emerges as a love letter to that mysterious, indispensible thing called art." I am not sure I get all that from the book, but it intrigues me enough to keep reading to see where it goes. It ends up in an unexpected place, and that too is okay. This book is definitely one in which as a reader, I just go with the flow with no expectation, no major a-ha moments, no disappointments, but a memorable reading experience regardless.


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Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore

Title:  Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore
Author:  Matthew Sullivan
Publication Information:  Scribner. 2017. 336 pages.
ISBN:  1501116843 / 978-1501116841

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

Opening Sentence:  "Lydia heard the distant flap of paper wings as the first book fell from its shelf."

Favorite Quote:  "Lydia's skills as a bookseller came mainly, she believed, from her ability to listen. A raging case of bibliophilia certainly helped, as did limited financial needs, but it was her capacity to be politely trapped by others that really sealed her professional fate."

This book has the word bookstore in the title. I'm in! The description outlines a mystery, beginning with a suicide, a young woman hiding in plain sight, and a cast of eccentric characters such as the BookFrogs. This book is beginning to sound better and better. It's a debut novel. That adds to the excitement with its possibilities.

The story goes that bookseller Lydia Smith clearly has a secret in her past. She is estranged from her father and has no other family. She is in a committed relationship, but that has its boundaries and limits. She lives a quiet, contained life in the Bright Ideas Bookstore in Denver, Colorado. Her quiet is shattered when Joey Molina, a regular customer commits suicide in the store. The mystery deepens as he seems to have left clues for Lydia. Why did Joey kill himself? Who is Joey? What is his possible connection to Lydia? These are the questions at the heart of this mystery.

Slowly, the book peels back the layers of the past to reveal Lydia's secret and solves the mystery of Joey's connection to Lydia. Despite the cozy attributes of the book, the crime described is a graphic and violent one; so, reader, be aware. The ending, when it comes, reverts the mystery to seemingly prosaic issues. It's sad, but I expected something more unusual based on the rest of the book.

The one thing I do not invest in with this book are the characters and the relationships. Lydia and her father. Lydia and her childhood friendship. Lydia and her boyfriend David. Lydia and Joey. Perhaps, it all centers on the character of Lydia herself. Deeply emotionally scarred by a horrific childhood event, Lydia lives her life with those emotions still driving her life. Even though she has compartmentalized her childhood by never speaking of it, its impact shapes who she is. As a bookseller, she embodies the characteristics shared by avid readers (like me!). She is not an unlikable characters, even a sympathetic one. Yet, something keeps me from completely vesting in Lydia as a character.

I love the setting of the book. Even Lydia's childhood is spent in and around a library. The Bright Ideas Bookstore is described as many levels, with cozy places to read and bookish treasures to be found throughout. As the description of the book states, the store is home to the "lost and lonely regulars who spend every day marauding the store’s overwhelmed shelves." It seems a haven, but, then again, most bookstores are a haven for me. This is one of a slowly vanishing breed that invites you in and invites you to linger. Perfect for the bibliophile in me.

I also love the fact that Joey's bequest to Lydia are books, with clues embedded in them. The books have been defaced (horror!) but with purpose to create a message. Also perfect for the bibliophile in me. Given an interesting plot and great descriptions, I look forward to reading more from Matthew Sullivan.


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Monday, September 4, 2017

The Moth Presents All These Wonders

Title:  The Moth Presetns All These Wonders
Author:  Catherine Burns (editor)
Publication Information:  Crown Archetype. 2017. 352 pages.
ISBN:  1101904402 / 978-1101904404
Book Source:  I received this book through the Blogging for Books program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "I first started hearing about the Moth in the late 1990s."

Favorite Quote:  "The Moth connects us, as humans. Because we all have stories. Or perhaps, because we are, as human, already an assemblage of stories. And the gulf that exists between us as people is that when we look at each other we might see faces, skin color, gender, race, or attitudes, but we don't see, we dan't see, the stories. And once we hear each other's stories we realize that the things we see as dividing us are, all too often, illusions, falsehoods:  that the walls between us are in truth no thicker than scenery. The Moth teaches us not to judge by appearances. It teaches us to listen. It reminds us to empathize"

This is the first time I have heard of The Moth although the organization celebrated its twentieth anniversary this year. The cover and idea of the book sounding intriguing; so, I decided to learn more.

The book itself hooks me from the beginning in the foreword by Neil Gaiman. It states so eloquently an idea that I hold dear. From its beginning, the book reminds me of other favorites - the works of Brandon Stanton and StoryCorps. All these works seek to bring the world together, one story at a time, one person at a time. In the words of Maya Angelou, "We are more alike my friends, than we are unalike." All these works seek to convey this idea.

The Moth returns to the oldest of all storytelling traditions - the oral tradition.  The purpose of the organization, according to its media kit, states, "The Moth celebrates the ability of stories to honor both the diversity and commonality of human experience, and to satisfy a vital human need for connection. It seeks to present recognized storytellers among established and emerging writers,  performers and artists and to encourage storytelling among communities whose stories often go unheard."

The idea began in 1997 in Georgia in the home of novelist and poet George Dawes Green. He brought the idea with him when he moved to New York City. To date, The Moth has had over 26,000 stories told in over 3,500 live events, and the numbers continue to grow every days.

The idea has blossomed and grown with open-mic events around the United States and community, education, and corporate programs. The project has also evolved into a radio broadcast, podcasts, and, now, this book. The book is the first venture to translate this oral storytelling into the written word.

The title of this book, All These Wonders, comes from one of the stories in the book. The larger metaphor is that "we all have moments in life when we are forced off the map. Sometimes it's by choice ... Other times we get shoved there against our will ... But the stories in this book who that when we dare to face the unknown, we usually discover that we have more grit and tenacity than we thought. And we often land in a place that we couldn't even have imagined when we started out."

As is the case with a collection of stories, some touched me more than other because of where I am in my life and my own experiences. The book comprises about 50 stories organized into seven sections. The individual stories run the gamut from light-hearted to heart-breaking. Some storyteller names I recognize, and some are new to me. Each story is only a few pages long with a brief biography of the storyteller and the details of where the story was first told. All leave me with something to ponder. This book is a beautiful glimpse into a fascinating project. I look forward to reading and listening to more.


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Saturday, September 2, 2017

The Lost History of Stars

Title:  The Lost History of Stars
Author:  Dave Boling
Publication Information:  Algonquin Books. 2017. 352 pages.
ISBN:  1616204176 / 978-1616204174

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 first warning was so delicate:  Moeder's hanging cups lightly touched lips in the china cabinet."

Favorite Quote:  "The best thing was for me to deal with the fear on my own, and once I learned that I could do it, it was a strength that would never leave me. For me, in the worst days, when everything else had been pared away, that remained."

The Lost History of Stars is another story of horrific atrocities and war told through the eyes of a child. This story is of the Second Anglo-Boer War in South Africa. Fought between 1899 and 1902, the war resulted in the death of not only soldiers but of children. The children died not just because of the guerrilla warfare but because of deprivation and disease as thousands of Boers were placed into internment camps by the British. The deplorable conditions of the camps led to infection and disease, which young children with weaker immune systems were particularly susceptible to.

This book is singularly focused on the victimization of the children in the camps. Those looking for a broader look at the history of the Boer War in terms of the actual fighting or its impact on South Africa will not find it in this book.

This story is narrated through the eyes of fourteen year old Lettie, who ends up in the internment camps with her mother, her brother, and her younger sister. The story is of war, but it is also a coming of age story for this young woman. It is a story of loss and atrocity, but there are moments of teenage joys and teenage angst. Given the age of the narrator, this book could almost have a young adult label although the content is so very adult and so very depressing.

For me, two things keep the book from being a more compelling and emotionally engaging narrative.

First, the first half of the book goes back and forth between two periods, both through Lettie's perspective. The first is memories of her childhood at home with her family. This is the legacy of her family and the peace and innocence of her life leading up to the war. The second is primarily of the life in camp, which ranges from occasional moments of teenage life to incredibly sad moments of death and violence. The back and forth approach works in many books, but for me, this story may have had more of an impact with a linear timeline. The difference between the "before" and the "after" would perhaps have been more stark if presented completely separately rather than intertwined in alternating chapters.

Second, the book starts with an incredibly intense, emotional, and jarring event. This moment marks the break between the "before" and "after." The rest of the book has equally emotionally, heart-wrenching moments but never quite recaptures the intensity of the powerful beginning. In other words, compared to the beginning, the rest of the books seems muted. Told in a linear fashion, this event would come part way through the book with the story building to it and beyond.

The back and forth does stop about midway through the book; the story shifts completely to life in the camps. It is at that moment that the emotion of the story picks up again.

This book speaks to the power of fiction to convey a history I know very little about. It teaches and sends me off to do more research on the non-fiction actual history of events. For that, I am thankful.


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Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Pagoda Tree

Title:  The Pagoda Tree
Author:  Claire Scobie
Publication Information:  Unbound. 2017. 400 pages.
ISBN:  1783523719 / 978-1783523719

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

Opening Sentence:  "Maya stopped when she saw the splashes of blood around the well."

Favorite Quote:  "There are some things that are not easily understood. Once you have a better grasp of our language, it will open the door to our customs. They are not based in ignorance, although you might think so ... You talk of your god, of Christ ... What is that? I do not cast it as idle superstition. I see it for what it is, a story of rebirth, an allegory of the continuation of live. Even after we have created our last, our spirit, our soul - whatever you wish to call it - continues to live on. There are many ways ... to tell the same story."

To understand the background of this book, you have to understand the history of devadasi in eighteenth century India. A devadasi was a young woman dedicated to the worship of a Hindu god. The girls were given to this service in a ceremony that resembles a wedding. In that sense, this concept was similar to young women joining a convent to one day become a bride of Christ.

Among many, it was considered an honor for the girl and the family to be selected to join this elite group. Girls as young as eight or nine were given to the gods; they then lived and trained in the temples to fulfill their role. Many girls often ended up with wealthy patrons, becoming influential in economic and political decisions. In that sense, this practice was similar to that of a courtesan or a geisha.

India's history as a set of city-states and even as a nation commingled with the history of devadasi. Under British rule, many of the wealthy kings and patrons of the small scattered pieces that made up India began to lose their power. As such, devadasis lost their patrons and were left without temple or support. Political machinations and violence entered the once sheltered lives of the devadasis, forcing them into alternate paths of survivals. Note that, in recent history, devadasis have all but disappeared as the practice was outlawed under Indian law in the 1980s. This piece of history is not directly relevant to this story but provides context of the change India has undergone. over the centuries.

The pagoda tree itself has significance. Called plumeria or frangipani in English, it is a tropical plant with beautiful fragrant flowers. It is also known as the temple tree, with its flowers being used as tribute to the Hindu gods and goddesses. The implication of course is both literal and metaphorical.

This cultural context is the heart of this book. This history and culture is brought to life through the eyes of young Maya, who begins the book as a child near a temple in Tanjore, India. She is chosen for the role of devadasi and gets a tastes of both the luxury and the constraints of that life. As the story progresses, Maya evolves into a woman whose quest for survival takes her down many paths and many roles.

Through Maya's story, Claire Scobie brings to life India at the time - the British rule, the infighting amongst the small kingdoms that make up India at the time, the trade, the poverty, and so much more. Maya's story becomes a vehicle to narrate the history rather than the history forming a background to Maya's story. The further the book progresses, the more this feeling permeates. The conclusion to the history is understandable, but the conclusion to Maya's story feels incomplete.

The historical detail is fascinating and includes much I did not know about devadasis or about British rule in India. Maya's character, particularly her introduction as an innocent child, is an engaging one. The strong woman Maya grows into is a sympathetic character. The history scatters the personal story a bit, but an engaging piece of historical fiction nevertheless.


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Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Gone

Title:  Gone:  A Girl, A Violin, A Life Unstrung
Author:  Min Kym
Publication Information:  Crown. 2017. 240 pages.
ISBN:  0451496078 / 978-0451496072

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

Opening Sentence:  "I've been dreaming about my violin."

Favorite Quote:  "There were voices all around me, but I was beginning to exist in a world without explanations, without sharing, a world of givens, without the fluid discourse of speech. More and more my violin alone spoke for me. Listen to the violin. Hear what the violin has to say ... As long as I had my violin, I had no fear. The violin would set me on the right track. The violin would lead me through."

Gone:  A Girl, a Violin, A Life Unstrung is a story of loss and grief. It is the story of a young woman coming to terms with the loss of what is almost assuredly the most important relationship in her life. Every individual's grief and their path through it is unique; there is no one single path through a trauma. What makes Min Kym's journey even more unique is that the loss is not that of a person in her life. The central relationship in this book is not one between two human beings. Min Kym is a virtuoso violinist, and her grief surrounds the theft of her Stradivarius violin.

Even to a casual music listener as myself, the name Stradivarius conjures up an image of prestige, elegance and history. These violins were made be members of the Italian Stradivari family during the 17th and 18th centuries. Translate that to mean rare, expensive, and each with its own unique provenance. To play a Stradivarius violin is to play the very best there is. For a Stradivarius to be played by a virtuoso is an experience like no other. Interestingly, this memoir has an accompanying album that, in Ms. Kym's words, is "as much a memoir told in music as the book is in words." As I write this review, Ms. Kym's performances with the Stradivarius play in the background. Hearing that combination is a moving experience, perhaps more so than the book itself.

The written memoir begins well before Ms. Kym meets "her" Stradivarius. It traces her Korean immigrant roots, family expectations, her start in music at age six, and the lightning quick progression and recognition of her gift. She does not meet "her" violin until age twenty-one. Its theft becomes her undoing, unmooring her career and her life. The practical resolution of the theft has a rather prosaic ending involving issues such as insurance and economics. The emotional resolution is still a work in progress, and this book is part of that journey.

The single minded focus of a child prodigy and a virtuoso is both the strength and weakness of this book for that focus embeds in the writing style. Written as a first person narrative, this story has a single focus - the music. Everything else in her life - family, school, heritage, friendships, relationships - is evaluated in its relationship to or its impact on her pursuit of music.

Insight into a passion such as that is fascinating but challenging to read for an entire book. I gain an appreciation for the lifestyle and dedication that goes into such a pursuit. However, the intensity of Ms. Kym's relationship with music and her violin comes across quickly. After a while, to keep reading, the conversation or the story needs to develop. Otherwise, perhaps, it is more suited to a shorter format rather than a novel-length memoir. However, I am so glad to be introduced to Ms. Kym's performances, and her music will remain part of the music of my life.


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Monday, August 28, 2017

The Last Neanderthal

Title:  The Last Neanderthal
Author:  Claire Cameron
Publication Information:  Little Brown & Company. 2017. 288 pages.
ISBN:  031631448X / 978-0316314480

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

Opening Sentence:  "They didn't think as much about what was different."

Favorite Quote:  "A mother makes a child from her own blood and bones. They are attached in the first part of life, and although the connection lessons, it never goes away."

A few disclaimers to begin with. I have not researched the science of this book. So, no ideas or commentary on whether this book represents the current understanding of neanderthals. Then again, I read this book not for the science but for the story, expecting one like a James Michener or a Jean Auel book. I also read the book admittedly based on the cover which is intriguing and draws me into the world of this book. Also admittedly, it took a few times and the story itself before I saw the silhouettes in the cover.

So, enough disclaimers. Now, on to an issue. The book includes an image of two skeletons in the book, presumably reflecting the characters of the story which is set about 40,000 years ago in the area that is now France. The image, however, looks an awful like the Lovers of Valdaro, a pair of human skeletons dated to about 6,000 years ago in the area that is now Mantua, Italy. Coincidence or artistic liberty? Either way, unnecessary and misleading. This book is not at all based in history. It is a pure fiction. The skeletal discovery in this book does not exist.

Now finally, the story. Like many books, this is a story set in two time periods - current day and 40,000 years ago. Like many books about such old history, the current time period is about an archaeological dig, and the past is the history that occurred among the remains and artifacts found at the site. This book extends a bit further by following time lines and situations in the current day that mirror those of the past.

The current day heroine is Rosamund, an archeologist who espouses theories about the Neanderthals that counter current beliefs. She is passionate in her work and believes that her work at this site will give proof to her theories. Obstacles and politics abound. Rosamund's personal life also enters the picture for she is pregnant with her first child. Emotions and relationships loom large.

The heroine of the past is Girl, the last neanderthal. The story of the past is a story about family, love, loss, and survival. Emotions and relationships also loom large in this time. Strongest of all though is the struggle for survival.

As often with books set in two time periods, the stories progress in tandem, giving further credence to Rosamund's theory and the basis for the book that the Neanderthals were more like current humans than we perhaps think. For that, the alternating time lines work.

However, As often with books set in two time periods, one story and one set of characters appeal to me more such that the other story becomes a distraction. In this book, the story of the past and the character of Girl is the more compelling one. That is unfortunately also the story that comes to an abrupt end at the close of the book. It leaves me wondering if a sequel is planned. Overall, the book is an enjoyable reading experience but not as compelling as I had hoped.


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Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Reading With Patrick

Title:  Reading with Patrick: A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship
Author:  Michelle Kuo
Publication Information:  Random House. 2017. 320 pages.
ISBN:  081299731X / 978-0812997316

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 went to the Mississippi Delta with a specific project:  to teach American history through black literature."

Favorite Quote:  "The idea that you can change somebody's life for the better is powerful. It looms, in particular, over the debate about teachers. Are they good or bad, cheats or saints, unfairly demonized or blindly exalted? Underpinning these opposed portraits is the debate over the nature of the student. One side of the argument claims the student is an impressionable blank slate, a tabula rasa onto which teachers - if they're good enough, smart enough, and they care enough - can effectively imprint their passions and knowledge. The other side argues that the student is already permanently formed by his conditions - by violence, by neglect, by poverty. No teacher can change his life. Neither side can be completely true. "

Here is the story summarized. Michelle Kuo, the daughter of first generation Taiwanese immigrants, grows up in relative security and prosperity. The family focuses on education and solid careers. Ms. Kuo graduates from Harvard and is unsure of the path she wants to take. While figuring things out, she joins the Teach for America program and is sent to a school in Helena, Arkansas. There, she encounters one of poorest communities in the country. It is a community that is ridden with poverty, crime, and racial divides. She teaches for two years and then leaves to pursue law school and her own life forward. Knowledge that one of her students stands accused of killing someone brings her back to Arkansas while he awaits trial. That is the time spent "reading with Patrick."

What I appreciate about this book is that it talks about what is so often not talked about in the United States - the poverty, the racial divide, and the inequity in the justice system. These are the issues so thoughtfully and poignantly dealt with in books such as Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward and Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. This book most reminds me of An Invisible Thread, which is also a story of an unlikely connection between people and the impact it can have.

I began this book prepared to love it and prepared to be moved by it. Unfortunately, for several reasons, this book was not for me. Reading with Patrick has very little about reading or about Patrick. This book is very much Michelle Kuo's story. It speaks to her immigrant background, family concerns, and cultural expectations. Those all come into play as many who surround her do not understand her choice to teach.

This book is about a young woman finding herself independent of family; her journey happens to intersect with this community and this young man. She comes as and remains an outsider to the community in Helena, Arkansas. It speaks about the poverty, crime, and racial divides in Helena, Arkansas but as it touches her life and not as a social commentary. Then, the page turns, and her journey continues without them. Michelle Kuo's journey is an interesting one as it mirrors the path of many young people, but just not the one I was expecting.

The subtitle of this book also uses the term life-changing friendship, but from reading the book, friendship is not what comes across. Pity perhaps. Guilt at a secure, prosperous life perhaps. A momentary connection but not friendship. This thought is reinforced by a little research on the background of this book. Very little is found about Patrick, but much can be read about Michelle Kuo. In fact, the base of this book can be found in a 2009 article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. The book acknowledges that the initial article was written without permission from Patrick and even without his knowledge. I leave this book wondering what was Patrick's story and what happened to Patrick and how Patrick's life changed because Michelle Kuo was a part of it for a time.


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Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Wildling Sisters

Title:  The Wildling Sisters
Author:  Eve Chase
Publication Information:  G.P. Putnam's Sons. 2017. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0399174133 / 978-0399174131

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

Opening Sentence:  "None of us can bear to touch his belt, so horrifyingly intimate."

Favorite Quote:  "It does feel like we have as many lies, forced to adjust our manners and allegiances according to the different worlds we inhabit, learning to say the right thing or not reveal too much."

The English countryside. An old house. Two time periods. A group of women. Mothers and daughters. Sisters. A mystery. This book has the perfect fixings for an enjoyable summer beach read.

Flora, Pam, Dot and the narrator Margot are the Wildling sisters. They are being raised by their eccentric and rather high maintenance mother. She packs them off to their aunt and uncle's house, Applecote Manor, in the country so she can go off and pursue other opportunities in Morocco! This moves comes with challenges and opportunities all its own for the girls. The home, though lovely, is a somber one because the daughter of the house Audrey vanished one day. She was never found, and her disappearance was never resolved. Her mother still holds out hope that her daughter will return; meanwhile, a house and a life becomes a living shrine. The neighboring estate on the other hand is home to handsome young men, who present a world of opportunities for the Wildling sisters who are on the brink of seeking relationships. What happened to Audrey and what happens to these young women during this summer is the story of the past.

Fast forward several decades. Applecote Manor sits empty and is sold to a couple looking to make a complete change in lifestyle. Jesse falls in love with the house and falls in love with the idea of her own home without the shadow of her husband's first wife lingering in every corner. She comes with her husband, her biological young daughter, and her teenage stepdaughter Bella. Bella is fifteen and still engulfed in the grief of her mother's death. The relationships between husband and wife and between stepmother and stepdaughter are fraught with conflicting emotions.

The mystery surrounding the house - that of Audrey's disappearance and that of the summer of the Wildling sisters - adds a counterpoint. For Jesse and her stepdaughter, it both adds to the fear in their relationship and conversely provides a way to connect that is not tied directly into the emotions of their own relationsihp.

The book starts off with a bang with a description of a body being dragged. It then slows considerably as the Gothic setting is described and the backstory of the past and the present is set up. It then picks up speed towards the middle and the end with some unexpected twists and turns.

Jesse and Bella's story is the stereotypical one of a rebellious, hurt teen and an adult working to get through and make a connection. Both characters act true to type, and the story resolves as you would expect. It is meant to be a current story, but reads as though they are also of a time in the past.

The story of the past and of the Wildling sisters themselves takes a much more unexpected path, making this the more intriguing of the two time periods. The Gothic impression of the house and the Gothic overtones to the story add an enjoyable atmosphere to this book about strong women in difficult situations making the tough choices.


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