Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Art of Hiding

Title:  The Art of Hiding
Author:  Amanda Prowse
Publication Information:  Lake Union Publishing. 2017. 288 pages.
ISBN:  1611099552 / 978-1611099553

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

Opening Sentence:  "Nina caught the red light only a spit away from the entrance to the boys school."

Favorite Quote:  "And if ever the real world feels too big or too scary, remember that is is nothing more than a little ball travelling through space and it fits right into the palm of your hand and the more courage you have, and the braver you are when facing it, the easier it is to conquer!"

The Art of Hiding is a rags to riches to rags story. Nina McCarrick is a first generation immigrant from Denmark and comes from humble beginnings. She falls in love and marries into wealth. Finn McCarrick is an up and coming businessman who wants nothing more than to take care of Nina. And she lets him, giving up on her independence and her dreams. Years pass, and they build a beautiful life. Two handsome young boys. A mansion in the suburbs. A private school education for their children. Nina never worries about money; Finn handles all of that. Nina never feels like she quite fits in, but life is good.

Then, Finn dies, and Nina discovers that her life is not at all like it appears. Bankruptcy drives Nina and her boys back to the modest neighborhood in which she grew up. Fortunately, she has the support of her sister Tiggy.

Such a premise sets up a story of survival and the courage to move forward. At the end, the word that comes to mind is sadly cliché. Unfortunately, for a couple of reasons, the story fails to engage me.

First is the stereotypes and extremes that the book builds its world on. Nina finds no friends in her life with Finn. She lives in a mansion, but it is more like a gilded cage. She portrays everyone in that life as money minded, shallow, and unpleasant. Back in her own modest neighborhood, she meets only people willing to lend a hand and help things work out for her and her boys. Perhaps, the intent is to depict the effect Finn's control on her life and the release from that control as Nina rediscovers herself. Unfortunately, what comes through is just the stereotypes because even after Finn's death, none of those relationships change.

Second is the character of Nina herself. She comes across not as a woman trying to survive a catastrophe, but as a self-centered woman not giving thought to those around her. Unfortunately, shallow is the word that comes to mind. This particularly manifests itself in her relationship with her sister Tiggy. Tiggy cares for Nina both as big sister and mother after their mother died. Yet, Nina leaves her behind when she marries Finn. Again, perhaps the intent is to depict the effect Finn's control on her life but what comes through is that Nina walks away. Tiggy is the first and only person to truly come to Nina's assistance when Finn dies. However, Nina is not appreciative of that support and certainly does not give thought to the challenges and struggles of Tiggy's life.

Finally, there are aspects of this book that leave me frustrated. First and foremost, Nina is completely clueless about the state of their finances when Finn dies. Does that happen in real life? Sadly, yes. Should it happen? Absolutely not. No one should be content with being told essentially to "not worry your pretty little head about it." (That cliche is mine not a quote from the book.) Secondly, one reaction is missing in Nina throughout the book. I wait for it, but it never comes. Anger. Anger towards Finn who treated her in such a manner and who managed to wreak such havoc with their lives. Nina never finds that anger, which seems completely unrealistic.

At the end, a story that should have been about courage and survival turns into one about shallow characters and stereotypes. Not the book for me.


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Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Little French Bistro

Title:  The Little French Bistro
Author:  Nina George
Publication Information:  Crown. 2017. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0451495586 / 978-0451495587

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

Opening Sentence:  "It was the first decision she had ever made on her own, the very first time she was able to determine the course of her life."

Favorite Quote:  "Every woman is a priestess if she loves life and can work magic on herself and those who are sacred to her. It's time for women to remind themselves of the powers they have inside."

As with Nina George's first book The Little Paris Bookshop, the premise of this book sounds like it could be a powerful story. A sixty-some year old woman remains in a controlling, abusive marriage for over forty years. The only way out visible to her seems to be suicide. That suicide attempt is how the book begins on the banks of the Seine River in the beautiful city of Paris.

As you might expect, Marianne's attempt is unsuccessful and lands her in the hospital. Her husband returns home, leaving Marianne to recover alone and then follow him home. Instead, Marianne runs. A found object, a painted tile, sets her on a path to Brittany. The name of the Finistére region on the west coast of Brittany comes from the Latin phrase meaning end of the earth. For Marianne, it seems fitting that she will end her life there.

As you might expect, she does not. Instead, she rediscovers life in and around a little French bistro in the small village of Kerdruc on the coast. A host of characters enter her life. Each brings their own back story. Each touches Marianne's life in some way, and Marianne leaves each one changed, providing just the right words and actions at just the right time.

As you might expect in a story about escaping the past, the past often comes to find you. The final step of the escape of course is the reckoning with the past. Oddly, the aspect that is never explored is why Marianne marries this man in the first place and why she stays in the marriage for over forty years. The corollary that then does not follow is how after a lifetime, she manages rather quickly to find her independence and her voice. That lack of development means that as a reader, I don't completely buy into Marianne's story. I don't ever feel that her character is fully revealed.

Unfortunately, as with Nina George's first book, this one ends up in a place that belies the strong premise. What sets up as almost a coming-of-age story for an older woman scatters into many other things. The book introduces a wide cast of characters and follows their stories in addition to Marianne's. While interesting in their own, following a wide array of stories means that no one story gets developed in depth.

What should be the story of a woman finding her strength also turns into a romance. I would love for a book about a woman finding her voice and her independence to remain about that. I would love to see the point made that coming out of a relationship, first learn to be yourself and by yourself before entering a relationship again.

Finally and unexpectedly, the book also introduces a magical element which is completely unnecessary to the book. Magical powers? Healers? Druids? Why not just people? On the other hand, that is the one unexpected element in this book.

Sadly, despite its premise, the plot and the characters fail to develop, making this not the book for me.


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Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Waking Land

Title:  The Waking Land
Author:  Callie Bates
Publication Information:  Del Ray. 2017. 400 pages.
ISBN:  0425284026 / 978-0425284025

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

Opening Sentence:  "I felt safe that night in Laon, safer than I had any night before in the city."

Favorite Quote:  "we have to be merciful ... If we're not, then what are we?"

When Lady Elana Valtai is about five years old, she and her family walks into what is essentially an ambush. No blood is shed, but Elana is kidnapped and held as insurance such that her father will no longer threaten the king in power.

Fast forward about fifteen years. Elana lives as a princess, having been cared for like a daughter by the king who kidnaps her. What she knows is the king's version of history and the fact that her family never came back for her. They seemingly left a five year old and never looked back. The secret Elana holds is of her past and of her magic, one because of guilt and the other because magic is a forbidden art.

Then, her world changes yet again. The king dies; rivals emerge; and Elana is on the run for her life. Her escape leads her back to her childhood home and her family. Here, she learns that there is another version of the history she has been taught and another side to the story. Allegiances are questioned and questioned again. An epic struggle for the kingdom ensues, with sorcerers, handsome princes, princesses who can defend themselves, and all the intrigues of royal politics.

Battling for the empire with kidnappings, rival kingdoms, armed soldiers, and sorcerers is unfortunately not quite the exciting, adventure-filled story I expect it to be. Unfortunately, the "epic" is not quite so epic. Primarily, this has to do with the depiction of the main character, Lady Elana. Warranted that at a young age, her world has been upended twice. It would be natural for her to question beliefs and actions. However, that uncertainty and that questioning somewhat takes over the book. Considering that she is the narrator of the story, what the reader sees is her internal monologue of uncertainty more so that the story itself. This also makes the pace of the story seem really slow, which does not work considering the plot line. Every plot twist seems to be accompanied by Elana's questions. Should I? Shouldn't I? Who do I trust? What do I do?

I am also disappointed in that the romance and Elana's romantic thoughts take over what should have the story of a strong, independent young woman capable of standing on her own. Not every story needs a love story, and not every princess needs a knight in shining armor. I would much prefer the story of the princess who is a brave knight.

The magical element, particularly the power of the earth, is present but not really developed as a main point in the book. Given the cover and the title, I expect there to be a greater importance placed on the land itself and on the role of humans as the stewards of the land. That message is really not the objective of this book.

The most interesting aspect of this book is the world the author creates. Admittedly, the reader gets a limited view through Elana's eyes. However, what is visible sounds like the forests of medieval England, Ireland, and Scotland with the addition of modern weapons. Royal palace intrigues usually make for an entertaining story, and this book is no different. It just falls short of the being the grand adventure it could have been.


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Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Something Like Happy

Title:  Something Like Happy
Author:  Eva Woods
Publication Information:  Graydon House. 2017. 432 pages.
ISBN:  1525811355 / 978-1525811357

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

Opening Sentence:  "You can't always pinpoint the precise moment that your life goes wrong."

Favorite Quote:  "...sometimes it's in the contrasts. Hot bath on a cool day. Cool drink in the sun. That feeling when your car almost skids on ice for a second and then you're fine - it's hard to really appreciate things unless you know what it's like without them."

Polly and Annie are strangers, until they are friends. One is living while she is dying. The other one is dying while she still has a lot of life to live.

Polly is a terminal cancer patient with a brian tumor that will lead to her death soon, really soon. Yet, Polly is determined to be happy and live every one of the days she has left.

Annie is physically healthy, but emotionally in pieces. Her marriage ended, ending many friendships along with it. She is working in a dead-end job and living in an apartment which she has not yet made home. Her mother suffers from dementia, with lucid moments becoming more and more rare. Annie has a lot to be sad about.

Polly and Annie meet at the hospital, and Polly makes Annie her project, if you will. She is persistent and edges her way into Annie's life, determined to have Annie join her project of a hundred days of happiness.

The book proceeds predictably with its repeated message about making the choice to be happy, about looking around and seeing the blessings in life, and about taking control of your own happiness. As you might expect, other friendships an romances emerges.

The serious moments in the book emerge from different sources, some predictable and the others more unexpected. The predictable one of course is Polly's story. How could a story of a lovely young woman struck down with a deadly disease not be sad? Beyond that though, it turns out that Polly has a story that goes beyond her illness. It is a reminder for Annie that all of us have a story. Thankfully, many are not catastrophic like Polly's but each life has sadness and joys. It depends on where you keep the focus.

A serious aspect of this book is embedded in a side character's story. One of the doctor is portrayed as aloof, abrupt, and focused. However, behind that demeanor is a story of an immigrant and a refugee trying to build a new life and devastated by the grief of the suffering of family left behind. Polly makes the point broader, "You know, nearly every doctor I've had in here is foreign. People say its' a bad thing, but what I'd like to know is, who would be doing those jobs if there weren't here? Thank goodness they can, is what I say!" Again, the point becomes that everyone has a story, but we have to choose to listen.

Another serious statement is found in the story of Polly's brother. His is the story of a fear of rejection, abuse, and the courage to emerge from both. The smooth, polished actor surface of his persona hides the story within. Again, a story exists. Joy and sorrow exist.

The book is predictable, sad, and sweet. There is nothing subtle about the points it tries to make. However, the central theme is a reminder that we all need at times. "How about a hundred days of doing our best to be alive - even if it's sad, or ordinary, and we want to cry most of the time? That's what living is, I think. Letting it all in. The happy days, the sad days, the angry days. Being awake to it."


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

Monday, November 6, 2017

The History of Bees

Title:  The History of Bees
Author:  Maja Lunde
Publication Information:  Touchstone. 2017. 352 pages.
ISBN:  1501161377 / 978-1501161377

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

Opening Sentence:  "Like oversized birds, we balanced on our respective branches, each of us with a plastic container in one hand and a feather brush in the other."

Favorite Quote:  "But first and foremost the knowledge made me richer. Richer than the other children. I was not beautiful, not athletic, not good with my hands or strong. I could not excel in any other fields. In the mirror an awkward girl stared back at me. The eyes were a little too small, the nose a little too big. The ordinary face revealed nothing about what she was carrying - something golden, something that made every single day worth living. And that could be a means of getting away."

Three time periods. Three parents and their children. Three families and their struggle for survival. And the bees or the lack of bees.

Years ago, I read A Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. A few years ago, I read a book titled The Bees by Laline Paull. Recently, environmental news has been full of articles about bees dying and the devastating effects that could have on our world. All of this reading has left an impact. So, when I saw a book titles The History of Bees, I flew at the chance to read it.

This book is fiction, of course. It is and is not a history of bees. Most of the book is like reading three independent stories in three completing different time periods and settings. What ties them together is the bees. In the 1850s in England, there is William, a biologist and a man who is trying unsuccessfully to make his mark on science. In 2007 in the United States, there is George, a beekeeper who is trying to keep his family business going in the face of economic, environmental, and familial adversity. In 2098 in China, there is Tao, a human pollinator who does the work of bees and who would do anything for her only child Wei-Wen.

The book alternates between the three time and three points of view. At the beginning, that makes the book a challenge, keeping the time lines and characters straight and trying to guess at the link between the three. Soon, however, that ceases to matter as the stories take over. The progression is effectively handled so that when the conclusion and connections come full circle, it seems like a natural outcome.

Throughout the book, you know the stories connect and you know the connection is the bees, but the how and the why does not become clear until the "a-ha" moments until the end. However, that does not matter. The three stories themselves are engrossing with developed main characters that I feel for. The writing evokes vivid images of these three completely different worlds.

Of course, the book makes its environmental and political statement. With such a topic, I expect it. However, this book accomplishes that in a natural way within the context of the story rather than a moralistic statement that happens to be couched in a story.

The parallel and equally important theme in this book is the bond between parent and child. William is disappointed in his son Edward and for a long time, does not see the potential in his daughters, particularly Charlotte. George and his son Tom are somewhat estranged as Tom's dreams lead away from the family business and George cannot envision a future with no one to carry on the family legacy. Tao spends every waking moment thinking of how to give her toddler son a better life and a better shot at life, especially given the regimented dystopian society she lives in. The joys, sorrows, hopes, and disappointments of parenthood bring an emotional grounding to this story. They give the story its heart and make the environmental message a memorable one.


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Saturday, November 4, 2017

Young Jane Young

Title:  Young Jane Young
Author:  Gabrielle Zevin
Publication Information:  Algonquin Books. 2017. 320 pages.
ISBN:  1616205040 / 978-1616205041

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

Opening Sentence:  "My dear friend Roz Horowitz met her new husband online dating."

Favorite Quote:  "Anticipating the worst doesn't provide insurance against the worst happening."

Young Jane Young dives into the world of politics, the seemy underside that often times wreaks havoc with lives. Rachel Shapiro is a mom, fierce in her love for her daughter but concerned about the choices her daughter makes and the consequences of those choices. Aviva Grossman is the young woman who falls in love with the wrong person and forever alters the course of her life. Embeth Levin is a wife who has to decide the balance between the good and the bad in her marriage. Jane Young is a woman content to leave her past far behind and live a quiet life in a small town in Maine. Ruby Young is the next generation, who draws the thread between past and present closed.

The book hits at serious issues of the gender divide that still exists in so many arenas but particularly in the world of politics. The story is about strong women who make compromises to live with the double standards and come around time and time again upon these inequitable gender standards.

A married man has an affair. The woman is shamed as having seduced him. A wife holds no expectations of fidelity. The young women caught in a political scandal is forced to build a new life after the headlines fade and move on to the next scandal. The secret of a woman's long ago past comes back to impact her current career.

This book is interesting because it is unexpected. The book is clearly focused on the women in the story even though the plot is all about the impact of their relationships with the men in their lives. The characters of the men, particularly the married politician at the heart of the scandal, are relatively one-dimensional and only present to give definition to the women's stories.

The story also begins in one direction and then takes a turn with every character. Just when I think I know where it is going, it brings in the impact on another person and tells another side of the story. Admittedly, the first half of the book is an adult perspective and the more interesting part of the book.

The entire section from the Ruby Young's perspective is a little too precocious for my taste. Ruby is young; yet, she helps her mother run her business, has her own American Express card, tells the story in letters to her pen pal, and has the confidence to take of on her own on a cross-country trip to find her past. Cute but a bit much. The ending winds back to an adult perspective and plays a game of "what if" which again brings the book back to the serious underlying issues.

The book is a quick, often light-hearted read that in its breezy manner leaves me with a lot to think about. "Because the things we don't have are sadder than the things we have. Because the things we don't have exist in our imagination, where they are perfect."


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Thursday, November 2, 2017

Understanding Color in Photography

Title:  Understanding Color in Photography: Using Color, Composition, and Exposure to Create Vivid Photos
Author:  Bryan Peterson and Susana Heide Schellenberg 
Publication Information:  Watson-Guptill. 2017. 144 pages.
ISBN:  0770433111 / 978-0770433116

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

Opening Sentence:  "When I first launched my dream to be a professional photographer back in the 1970s, I began as most did at that time:  by shooting with the less expensive black-and-white films."

Favorite Quote:  "Your photographic vision, which comes from within, is vitally important to your art of image-making. As an artist, you take responsibility for your vision, you own the creative process; the creative process does not own you! Your vision is inside you and is shaped by many factors, not the least of which is your love of color."

A reader's perspective and background is crucial to understanding their review of any book. It is even more crucial in a review of an instructional book such as this one. I am an amateur photographer - a hobbyist. I shoot both with my phone which is always with me and with a larger DSLR camera and lenses whose intricacies I am still exploring.  I work in both color and black and white. My snapshots are of my family; they are more about capturing memories and the moment rather than photographic skill. My favorite subjects for exploring photographic skills are things in nature. One day, of course, my hope is to apply one to the other.

I first explored Bryan Peterson's teaching through online sources. Bryan Peterson is an accomplished photographer and the author of many books and the force behind a photography school. His books have long been resources of photographers looking to learn. This book is no different. Learning to See Creatively explored ideas on really seeing the world around you. This book explores the world of color:
  • evaluating the interplay between light, exposure, and color
  • using color in composition through ideas such as complementary vs. analogous vs. monochromatic colors, the weight of colors, and the color wheel.
  • understanding the psychology of color and using those ides for impact in photographs
  • using tools to enhance colors
Clearly, any book such as this one presents the author's philosophy on the subject. For example, the section on tools to enhance colors are relatively short and at the end of the book. Both the section on filters and photo editing begin with a statement that the author is not a fan of using tool. He does use them, but the preference is not to.

This book is not for the complete novice. It assumes an understanding of the terminology of photography - f-stop, ISO, white balance, shutter speed, and so on. However, it is also not equipment dependent. The ideas in the book can be used whether you have a camera which adjusts for all these settings or a point and shoot with automatic settings. The writing style of the book is also like a personal narrative or conversation (lots of you... and I....), making it more accessible to readers.

This book is both instruction manual and a spring board for inspiration. The setup of the sections is similar - text embedded in a multitude of photographs with each photograph specifying the technical setup of the shot and the story behind the shot. The full color photographs, of course, make this book. Just flipping through the book creates a rainbow of images to enjoy. The photographs are from around the world, but the subject matter is ordinary enough to be found in your own neighborhood - an orange, a street vendor, a bird, leaves, paint brushes, a match and its flame, for example. The key is not have great vistas to photograph but learning to seeing the beauty in the ordinary.

That perhaps is my favorite aspect of Bryan Peterson's books. He makes beautiful photography approachable and achievable. Putting it into play, of course, takes practice, but the inspiration is invaluable.


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

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Pieces of Happiness

Title:  Pieces of Happiness
Author:  Anne Ostby
Publication Information:  Doubleday. 2017. 320 pages.
ISBN:  0385542801 / 978-0385542807

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

Opening Sentence:  "My dear friend - Can I still call you that?"

Favorite Quote:  "Power lies in knowledge. Especially in deciding whether to use it."

From Norway to a cocoa plantation in Fiji. That is the path Kat's life has traveled in the forty years since she left high school, her family, her friends, and her home. She and her husband Niklas traveled the world from project to projects and in their sixties finally settled on the island of Fiji. Sadly, Niklas drowned, leaving Kat to carry on alone.

Now comes the improbable premise of this book. Kat reaches out to four girlfriends from high school - Ingrid, Lisbeth, Maya, and Sina. She has not seen these women since high school, and even at that time, not all friendships were stable. After all, it was high school. Anyways, Kat reaches out and invites the women to Fiji, not for a visit to reconnect but to live with her on her cocoa plantation. The premise stems from the fact that Kat spent the intervening forty years wandering the world and, other than her husband, formed no other lasting friendship. So, these high school friends still represent her core of friends.

Now comes the even more improbable aspect of this book. All four women say yes. All four remained in Norway after  high school, never venturing far from the homes they grew up in. All four created lives with careers, families, and friends. Yet, enough sadness exists in their lives for each one to say yes to such an invitation and to say yes to an opportunity to almost begin again.

Believable or not, you decide. Or suspend disbelief and go along to see what the story brings.

Beyond the unlikely premise, the story proceeds as you might expect. Each woman, including Kat, herself, brings all their baggage with them - the secrets, the successes, the fears, and the love accumulated over their sixty some years of life. Gradually, of course, the secrets old and new emerge, and paths forward emerge. Throughout this process, Kat's housekeeper Ateca serves as the "Greek chorus" of this book, offering commentary and clarification on how the reader should view the five women.

 What I expected to see explored further was the beautiful setting of Fiji. The book really does not paint a picture of the backdrop; the only point to be made is that it is so completely different from Norway. For its beautiful setting, the book is not a visual story; it is all about the characters, relationships, and emotions. The book does attempt to capture some of the culture of Fiji, particularly through Ateca's commentary as she attempts to help these newcomers traverse the traditions. At times, the commentary seems just that - commentary - rather than an integral part of the story; however, it is still fascinating to learn about a culture I don't know much about.

What I do enjoy about the book is that it focuses on some of the issues of aging - physical constraints, the need for companionship, the joy and struggle of children growing up, and the vital role of friendship. This books becomes about the past we carry with us, what we choose to hang on to, what we let go of for our own benefit, and what deserts us. That is the memory of this book that will stay with me.


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