Thursday, December 31, 2020

Total Meditation: Practices in Living the Awakened Life

  Total Meditation: Practices in Living the Awakened Life
Author:  Deepak Chopra, MD
Publication Information:  Harmony. 2020. 336 pages.
ISBN:  1984825313 / 978-1984825315

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "If someone asked me what to expect from meditation, I'd reply, 'Anything and everything.'"

Favorite Quote:  "I am present in everything I see ... I am present in everything I hear ... I am present in everything I touch ... I am present in everything I taste ... I am present in everything I smell ... I am present in everything I think ... I am present everywhere."

I love the concepts of this book. Our entire life is a meditation. Out mind and body are indivisible; together, we are a united whole. The achievement of consciousness and presence is a process. I love the approach proposed. "We should take seriously a famous quote of Einstein's: 'There are only two ways to live. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.' The words are inspiring, but how do you actually live a life with the awareness the everything is a miracle?"

The bulk of the book focuses on the first part, providing definitions and descriptions of words often heard - awareness, through, meditation, mindfulness, self-inquiry, reflection, contemplation, concentration, prayer, quiet mind, controlled breathing, resistance and so much more. This section of the book quotes Bill Bryson's The Body: A Guide for Occupants in a discussion of homeostasis. The entire descriptive dialogue is interesting but perhaps a bit academic and a bit repetitive. It is very much focused on the "what" and "why" of total meditation. Some techniques such as breathing are presented but the focus is descriptive. I feel like one reading is not enough to grasp everything being said.

The last third of the book is titled Making the Practice Richer. To me, these sections are really the "practice" and the "how."

My favorite section of the book is the one titled "Feeling the Miracle: 10 Simple Exercises." It builds upon the concept of the Einstein quote above. The ten exercises point out ten things that we do not often give conscious thought to. The point made is that if we did, they would truly be miraculous. This starts to get to the "how" and I look forward to incorporating some of these considerations in my own life. The section ends with the crucial reminder that "by any measure, just to be here is miraculous."

The next section introduces a seven day course. This section packs a lot of information that I think will require multiple readings to implement. Nevertheless, it provides a structure that can be followed.

The final section of this component covers 52 Sanskrit mantras, one for each week of the year. The use of Sanskrit mantras ties this book to an ideology and a belief system in a way that the rest of the book does not. The remainder of the book discusses some science and some philosophy but not a faith based ideology. Whether or not that ideology works is dependent on the individual reader.

The epilogue pulls the book together into the main concept of presence, awareness, and awakening. The ideas of the book are not new. The author's introduction itself begins with the statement that the practice of meditation dates back thousands of years. So, what does a new book introduce in this genre? It is at times a repackaging or reimagining of the ideas. It is at times that I, as a reader,  need a reminder of the ideas. It is this that gives book in this genre their merit.

I enjoy the book at this point in my own journey where the reentering and the rebalancing is needed. I need the reminder to shift and maintain focus. This book does exactly that.

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

Navigate Your Stars

  Navigate Your Stars
Author:  Jesmyn Ward
Publication Information:  Scribner. 2020. 64 pages.
ISBN:  1982131322 / 978-1982131326

Book Source:  I listened to the audiobook as a fan of the author's work.

Opening Sentence:  "Good morning y'all."

Favorite Quote:  "I realized education wasn't one choice. It was a lifetime undertaking."

I have loved Jesmyn Ward's fiction and nonfiction work ever since I was introduced to it through a book club reading Men We Reaped. She was born in California, raised in Mississippi, and now is a professor of creative writing at Tulane. She is the winner of the National Book Award in Fiction and of the MacArthur "Genius" Fellowship. Her books tell compelling, emotional stories. In fiction and nonfiction, Jesmyn Ward contributes to an important conversation - one that I definitely want to be part of. If I had the opportunity to hear her speak, I would definitely take it.

To some extent, that is what this book brings. It is only 64 pages in length. It encapsulates Ms. Ward's 2018 address at the Tulane commencement. The audiobook is eighteen minutes in length and read by the author. The printed book with its beautiful illustrations is clearly designed to be a gift at graduation or other moment of inspiration.

The message of lifelong learning and about doors closing and doors opening is an important one. "Success is not the result of making one good choice, of taking one step. Real success requires step after step after step after step. It requires choice after choice."

The message of your stars is also an important one. We are, each one of us, on our own individual journey. We must identify our destination and then chart our course through our stars.

As designed, the book will make a lovely gift and a reminder to keep on the shelf when we find ourselves going off course or we make the decisions to change course all together.

If reflective, meditative, inspiration is for you, so is this book.

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

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

The Color of Love

  The Color of Love
Author:  Marra B. Gad
Publication Information:  Agate Bolden. 2019. 256 pages.
ISBN:  157284275X / 978-1572842755

Book Source:  I read this book as a selection for a local book club.

Opening Sentence:  "My friend Rosa often says that she is amazed that I can be loving or kind or happy."

Favorite Quote:  "I have a lens into the world very few share. I am the luckiest."

Marra B. Gad is what she refers to as a "mixed-race Jewish unicorn." Her biological parents are a white Jewish woman and a black father. The pregnancy was unplanned, unwanted, and hidden. The baby was to be put up for adoption through a rabbi who had made the placement of Jewish babies with Jewish families his priority. Marra's adoptive parents are white, Jewish, and from Chicago. They adopted Marra at three days old in 1970 and then went on to have two biological children - Marra's brother and sister.

Marra's experiences outside of the family certainly resonate. It is the story of being always made to feel the other. In the black communities, the question arises about how could Marra possibly be Jewish? In Jewish communities, she is made to feel that she does not belong because she is black. Apparently, being black or bi-racial as Marra is and Jewish is a combination that does not exist in people's minds. Hence a unicorn. I do wish this aspect of her life was explored more in the book. These are relevant conversations, and I would be intrigued to hear details of and her perspective on these situations.

For Marra and for many others, this experience spills over into family as well. Her parents, siblings, and grandmother surround Marra with love. However, not everyone is as kind or as accepting. This memoir brings the focus of these relationships down to one - Marra's Great-Aunt Nette. Nette and Marra's mother are close until her comments about Marra drives a wedge in that relationship. As far as Marra's mother is concerned, her daughter is her daughter. Anyone not okay with that is not okay with her.

Fast forward, fifteen years. The family discovers that Nette has Alzheimer's. Because of illness and other family commitments, it seems that Marra is the only one of her siblings or her mother in a position to be able to help. She can walk away because of Nette's treatment of her, or she can help. As she says many times throughout the book, Marra chooses love. This book narrows down in focus down to one relationship and to some extent shifts focus to Alzheimers. I think I would have appreciated a broader view into her perspective and experiences as a biracial, Jewish woman.

At times, this aspect of the book reads as very self-serving. There are repeated statements about how she has the choice to walk away but does not. There are repeated statements about the Four Seasons being a home away from home. There are repeated statements about her IQ and her business acumen. Sometimes, that is part and parcel of the fact that life as a minority often means having to stand up for your qualifications and having to prover yourself over and over again. However, anyone who chooses to read this book does not need that proof.

That being said, this book is ultimately a story about family and love. Choosing love is always good idea.

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

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

  The Balldad of Songbirds and Snakes
Author:  Suzanne Collins
Publication Information:  Scholastic Press. 2020. 528 pages.
ISBN:  1338635174 / 978-1338635171

Book Source:  I read this because it is a Hunger Games book!

Opening Sentence:  "Coriolanus released the fistful of cabbage into the pot of boiling water and swore that one day it would never pass his lips again."

Favorite Quote:  "I think there's a natural goodness built into human beings. You know when you've stepped across the line into evil, and it's your life's challenge to try and stay on the right side of that line."

It's been many years since I read the three books or watched the movies in The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins. Returning to the world of the Capital and the districts is a walk back in time. I am glad for the distance because of the character of President Snow in the series. If read close together, I don't think I could see past his atrocities to see his character as a young man named Coriolanus Snow.

Coriolanus! What a name! How do you pronounce that? In a nod to the original stories, the book explains that katniss is a type of swamp potato. But Coriolanus! Of course, it begs research. So, I found a reference. I don't know if that's the author's source, but it does seem to relate. Coriolanus is the name of a early 1600s tragedy by William Shakespeare. Giaus Marcus Coriolanus was a 5 century BC Roman general; it is disputed whether he is a historical or legendary figure. He was decorated for valor but later fled to exile because his proposals were deemed too harsh. He then returned to try and conquer the Roman capital. What happened after is not clear. I see similarities. I would love to know if this is the author's inspiration.

Regardless, this is Coriolanus's story as he looks for his chance not only to get ahead but to redeem his family name. The odds are definitely not in his favor. He gets the chance to be a mentor in the tenth annual Hunger Games, but his assigned tribute is the presumably weakest one of the lot - a female from District 12. What to do? How to not just survive but thrive?

This book is the journey of how a young man becomes President Snow, or at least puts himself on that path. Having read the original series, I know how this turns out before I start reading. Coriolanus Snow will survive. He will even thrive. If President Snow is anything to judge by, Coriolanus as a young man will do whatever it takes as long as it suits his purposes.

Yet, somehow, the book manages to set up a sympathetic character at the beginning. A poor young man looking for a break and look to make his family name proud.  Watching him make decision after decision to get himself ahead does not stop me from hoping that the next one will be different. I finish the book still hoping that somehow it will have a different outcome than the one already written years ago. Silly but entertaining to read.

That being said, the female lead in this book - Lucy Gray - is about as uninteresting as her name. Oddly, it is the most plain of all the names in the book. She is definitely set up to be unique, different, and quirky. Unfortunately, for the most part, it crosses the boundary into uninterestingly odd. The ending, of course, implies that her story may continue, but I don't know that I care to follow along.

All that aside, sequels, prequels, and accompaniment stories rarely ever captivate as much as the original. That is certainly true of this one. It does not capture the uniqueness or the intensity of The Hunger Games. Am I glad I read it? Yes. Will I likely follow along? Yes, for the story and for the trip down memory lane. Will it have the same impact as the original? No.

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

Monday, December 28, 2020

The Book of Two Ways

  The Book of Two Ways
Author:  Jodi Picoult
Publication Information:  Ballantine Books. 2020. 432 pages.
ISBN:  198481835X / 978-1984818355

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "My calendar is full of dead people."

Favorite Quote:  "I believe that there are five things we need to say to people we love before they die, and I give this advice to caregivers:  I forgive you. Please forgive me. Thank you. I love you. Goodby. I tell them that they can interpret those prompts any way they like, and nothing will have been left unsaid."

What do art, Egyptology, end of life support, infidelity, marriage, parenthood, quantum physics, and terminal illness have in common? All these disparate topics actually come together to form the story of this book.

I love the premise and the question this book asks. "I have heard that when you are about to die, your life flashes before your eyes." The question is who do you see? The thread of the story is there. It is about life choices, what governs them, and the regrets in life for the path not taken. However, the thread does not coalesce into an entire, moving story of me.

The book includes a lot of detail about Egyptology and about mathematics and physics. I enjoy the history, particularly about the Coffin Texts, the ancient Egyptian book of two ways for which this book is named. The metaphor, of course, is clear. Whether in this life or the afterlife, each individual has multiple paths, and the choices we make determine the path. We may make the choice, but we must accept the consequences. However, I find myself skimming through the detailed descriptions, and at times, the story appears lost in the factual details. Again, the thread about the path chosen and the path not taken is there but somewhat lost.

The book reads like a romance. It is a romance, complete with graphic scenes - on a kitchen counter, in a shower, and even one discussing a circumcision! Beyond that, the story is about infidelity with a child involved. Where that storyline ends up seems completely unbelievable.

The storyline related to Dawn's work as a death doula again pulls at the thread of paths not taken and regrets. I suppose the parallels are there to be drawn to Dawn's own life. However, that is more the patient's story and seems separate and distinct from the main plot of the book.

The ending of the book is a non-ending. I suppose the point is that it is up to each one of us to determine the path forward. However, it leaves essentially a romance about choices on a cliffhanger. Not a satisfying reading experience. Interestingly, my reason for wanting a conclusion is for some of the other characters more so than the main character herself.

That brings me to the final reason. For a romance or a book about choices to be compelling, the character at the heart of the romance or the choices must be compelling. The tragic events that altered the course of Dawn's life occur years before the story of the book begins. However, the book focuses on the choices fifteen years later, placing that tragedy at a distance. She is, in her own words, "a middle-aged woman who wonders what else her life might have been." However, "...women don't get have mid-life crises where they run off to find themselves." That, in and of itself, has the potential to be a compelling story, but Dawn unfortunately evolves into a fairly unlikable character, primarily for the way in which she treats the people in her life.

I have read several Jodi Picoult books. The books tackle difficult issues. They have made me think and have elicited a strong emotional response. I have enjoyed some more then others. Whenever a new one comes out, I feel compelled to read it. Her books deal with such serious human issues. I don't always agree with her take on the issues, but I am glad they are discussed and brought forth in this manner. Unfortunately, for all these reasons, this is the first one which, for me, does not elicit that response. At the end, this book feels like a romance trying too hard and unsuccessfully make a bigger, philosophical point.

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

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Remember Me

  Remember Me
Author:  Mario Escobar
Publication Information:  Thomas Nelson. 2020. 384 pages.
ISBN:  0785236589 / 978-0785236580

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "My hands shook with the letter I had just received, postmarked from Mexico."

Favorite Quote:  "I was thinking about friendship, about the indestructible ties of love between two people, who until a certain time had been complete strangers, but, who, somehow, on the solitary path of life, found another soul with whom to share the journey."

I love this book for the history to which it introduces me. "Remember Me is the collective story of the Children of Morelia. Some 460 children between the ages of four and seventeen were sent from Spain to Mexico in an attempt to escape the terrible ravages of the war ... The adventures of Marco, Isabel, and Ana Alcalde are of course a tribute to the Children of Morelia, but they are ultimately a tribute to all the children of the Spanish Civil War who were sent to safety in exile in the Soviet Union, Belgium, the United Kingdom, France, Argentina, and Chile. They had to leave behind what they loved most - their parents - and, in many cases, they were exiled forever."

I love this book because remembering this history is timely as the news is filled with stories of the hardships refugees and immigrants - including children - face today. As the author states, "My hope is that Remember Me pays homage to the exiles of all wars - to those who have lost their homelands to the brutality of human violence."

The story of this book is the story of the Alcalde family. Francisco and Amparo Alcalde are supporters of the Spanish republic, termed communists by those on the other side of the conflict. Francisco works as a printer, and Amparo is an actress. They have three children - Marco, Isabel, and Ana. As war comes to Madrid, Francisco and Amparo make the decision to send their children to what they believe will be safety in Mexico. Things, however, are very rarely what they seem. The challenges that the children face in Mexico and their quest to reunite with their parents is the heart of this book.

The narrator is Marco in 1975, about 40 years since his experiences in the war. His view is that as an adult looking back. The story is the memory, and as such, incorporates some of the insight gained as an adult, and correspondingly, some of the distance that comes with time.

The atrocities described in this book are horrifying and heartbreaking. However, that distance seems to carry into the telling of the story. At the end of the book, I feel like I know much more about the history through both the book itself and through the nonfiction research I do to better understand it. However, even by the end of the book, I don't feel like I know the characters. Francisco and Amparo are loving parents and loyal to their cause. Marco is the older brother charged with being the caretaker. Isabel and Ana are the young girls set adrift by was but holding on to each other and to their brother. 

The horrors these children go through are unimaginable. Loss of home. Loss of family. Loss of country. Orphanage. Abuse. Abduction. Near starvation. Violence. Death. Fear. And even more. Throughout, they find moments of joy and friendship and help. At the end of the book, I remember the experiences more than the characters of the impact on them.

Perhaps, that is the point - to remind us of a history that should not be forgotten. The point of fiction is also to tell create memorable characters. This book excels at one of the two goals

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

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Anxious People

  Anxious People
Author:  Fredrik Backman
Publication Information:  Atria Books. 2020. 352 pages.
ISBN:  1501160834 / 978-1501160837

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "A bank robbery."

Favorite Quote:  "They say that a person's personality is the sum of their experiences. But that isn't true, at least not entirely, because if our past was all that defined us, we'd never be able to put up with ourselves. We need to be allowed to convince ourselves that we're more than the mistakes we made yesterday. That we are all of our next choices, too, all of our tomorrows."

"This is a story about a bridge, and idiots, and a hostage drama, and an apartment viewing. But it's also a love story. Several, in fact."

Sometimes, this story is as scattered and disjointed as the first sentence would suggest. Sometimes, it all comes together and becomes about what happens when good people - no matter how faulty, broken, and anxious they may be - act out of love individually and collectively.

The bank robber is a parent afraid of losing their child. Zara is woman filled with regret for a decision made long ago. Nadia is a psychologist who took on her profession for a very personal reason. Estelle grieves the loss of a beloved husband and the life they had together. Roger and Anna-Lena have been married a long time, and perhaps the relationship is stagnating. Julia and Ro are relative newlyweds and soon-to-be parents. Lennart is there by chance or by fate, depending on your outlook. The realtor is there for business. Jim and Jack are father and son and fellow police officers. These are the "idiots" whose stories intersect in this book. "... most people never become individuals to us. They're just people. We're just strangers passing each other, your anxieties briefly brushing against mine as the fibers of our coats touch momentarily on a crowded sidewalk somewhere. We never really know what we do to each other, with each other, for each other."

The bridge is in a small town near Stockholm. It is both a place where people place locks of love and contemplate suicide.

The hostage drama ensues because an act of desperation in a bank goes very very wrong.

The apartment, during the course of a day, is where many things are healed and many answers are found.

The "plot" of the book goes that someone attempts a bank robbery at a cashless bank. In panic and on the run, the bank robber enters an open door to an apartment. In the apartment are a number of people considering the purchase of the home. The bank robber has a gun. The apartment viewers end up hostages. The police is called in. The hostage situation ends. The hostages leave, but the gun and blood on the carpet remains. The question remains. Who was the bank robber and where did they go? The police interview each of the hostages in an attempt to solve the mystery.

In this context, the book goes back in time and reveals what leads each individual to this place at this point in time. Some of it is over the top. A woman who states that she views apartments of those less wealthy than her as therapy. A man dressed in underwear and a rabbit head makes an appearance. The police interviews are ridiculous and seem to ridicule the process. There are moments that the entire book seems ridiculous and gimmicky.

Somehow, though, towards the end, the stories and the relationships become clear and it all comes together. The ending is sweet and feel-good and all about acting out of love. "She told herself that was why you should always be nice to other people, even idiots, because you never know how heavy their burden is." In a world so full of negativity some days, I will take sweet and feel-good any day and every day.

This is the seventh Fredrik Backman book I have read. Some have left lasting impressions. Some I have enjoyed and let go. This one was iffy for a bit to the point that I almost put it down. I am glad I did not for in the end, it leaves me with a memory of the characters and a smile on my face as most of his other books have.

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

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

The Last to See Her

The Last to See Her
  The Last to See Her
Author:  Courtney Evan Tate
Publication Information:  MIRA. 2020. 352 pages.
ISBN:  077830941X / 978-0778309413

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review for the Fall 2020 mystery/thriller blog tour from Harlequin Trade Publishing.

Opening Sentence:  "Genevieve tipped the courier and set the certified letter on the coffee table."

Favorite Quote:  "Sometimes, beauty came from pain. Beginnings came from endings. And new lives came from old ones that had come to an end. Her old life had taught her so many things. She would treasure them as she lived her new one."

***** BLOG TOUR *****


The cast of characters: Genevieve - romance novelist, wife, sister. Thad - Genevieve's recently-ex husband. Meghan - doctor, wife, mother, sister. Joe - Meghan's husband. Jenkins - the private detective. Nate Hawkins - the police detective.

The mystery: Genevieve and Meg are on a sister's trip to New York City. On the first night of the trip, Genevieve disappears. There is no body. There is no trace of her. Murder? Abduction? Suicide? Something else all together?

The background:  Genevieve and Thad had a solid marriage until they didn't. They are newly divorced after Genevieve dragged out the process of signing the papers. Joe and Meghan are a solid couple, or are they?

The revelations: Who is sleeping with who? Who thinks about sleeping with who? Who suspects someone sleeping with someone? Who holds a grudge against who? Who harbors secrets of their own? The short answer - everyone! Secret households. Secret relatives. Secret relatives with secrets of their own. Secret affairs. Secret dreams. Secret pasts. Secret plans for revenge. The question is what each chooses to see, what each seeks to avenge, and what each lets go of. "I'm not delusional ... I know what the world is. I just choose to see the best in it." True or not? And for whom? I leave you to figure out and to decide.

The last to see Genevieve before she disappears is literally Meghan. The question, of course, is what happened to Genevieve and who is responsible? Given the small cast of characters, this book is more family drama than suspense. The first part of the book sets up this drama between husbands and wives and between sisters. Unfortunately, the drama starts to lose me with descriptions such this relationship:  "____ was sweet and docile, a golden retriever. Somehow, for some reason, ___ came to realize she preferred Dobermans...a fierce man who could protect his woman." Men, dogs, relationships... really?

Then, the story ventures elsewhere. Some aspects of this book are completely unbelievable. Yes, I realize it is fiction but nevertheless fiction that feels real creates a story. In this book, there is the police officer who gets personal, crossing all boundaries of professional ethics, with someone who could be a likely suspect. Then, there is the character whose actions do not match the stated description of their mental ability. The most likable and most genuine character ends up the private detective whose role is critical to the resolution of the mystery and yet tangential to the who-done-it question in that he is never a suspect.

If you choose to suspend all disbelief, the book read quickly and easily. It traverses past and present to show how Genevieve, Meghan, Thad, and Joe all arrive to the point of Genevieve's disappearance and what role they each play. The journey to that one is an interesting one fraught with family betrayals.

The thing that bothers me the most about the book is the resolution of the who-done-it. Without a spoiler, I will say that it does a disservice to a conversation that has serious implications for services and help that people may need. The treatment of this issue in the book is negative and, to my mind, an unnecessary answer to the mystery. The same resolution could be had with a completely different explanation, creating a character with much greater depth and interest. So, partly entertaining, partly annoying, and partly disappointing.

About the Book

New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Courtney Evan Tate's The Last to See Her (MIRA; 12/29) is a twisty, fast-paced domestic suspense about sisters, secrets and betrayal--for fans of B.A. Paris and Riley Sager.

Genevieve, a writer, is about to finalize her divorce from her cheating husband Todd. So when her sister Meg, an ambitious physician, has a convention to attend in New York City, she invites Gen along to celebrate her return to single life. It will be a perfect sisters' getaway in the big city! But things go awry when, on their first evening at the hotel, Gen decides to take a late night walk and disappears without a trace. Eventually she is officially declared a missing person.

Suspicion soon falls on her sister Meg, who was the last person to see her.

Through twists and turns, it is revealed that Meg has been sleeping with her brother-in-law Todd... And then there is a question of a newly purchased insurance policy that just has just gone into effect before Gen’s disappearance. Both Todd and Meg deny any knowledge of it.

But has an actual crime been committed? Can it be proven? And if so, who is really the guilty one?

About the Author

Courtney Evan Tate is the nom de plume (and darker side) of the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Courtney Cole. As Courtney Evan Tate, she is the author of Such Dark Things and I'll Be Watching You. Courtney grew up in rural Kansas and now lives with her husband and kids in Florida, where spends her days dreaming of new characters and storylines and surprising plot twists and writing them beneath rustling palm trees. Visit her on Facebook or at

Buy Links

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

Monday, December 21, 2020

A Girl is a Body of Water

  A Girl is a Body of Water
Author:  Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi
Publication Information:  Tin House Publishing. 2020. 560 pages.
ISBN:  1951142047 / 978-1951142049

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Until that night, Kirabo had not cared about her."

Favorite Quote:  "Remember, be a good person, not a good girl. Good girls suffer a lot in this life."

"Apparently, both women and the sea were baffling, changeful:  today they are this, tomorrow they are that ... Water has no shape, depending on where it flows. The sea is inconsistent, it cannot be tamed, it does not yield to human cultivation, it cannot be owned; you cannot draw borders on the ocean. To the ancients, women belonged with the sea..."

This the story the ancients told to establish the control of a patriarchal Ugandan world in which twelve year old Kirabo is growing up. "Stories have such power you cannot imagine. that one turned women into migrants on land. Since then, women have been rootless - moved not just across places but clans, tribes, national, even races."

Kirabo is being raised by her grandparents - her father's parents. Her father lives in the city and visits occasionally. Her mother is a mystery that Kirabo wants to unravel. Who is she? Where is she? Why does she not want Kirabo? 

Although the main character is Kirabo, this is the story of many women, each depicting some aspect of the patriarchal, male dominated society. Kirabo, Alikisa, Ya, Abi, Gayi, Nnambi, Nsuutta, Nnakku, Giibwa, and other that I have possibly forgotten. Their stories are centered in the decisions and actions of the men in their lives - mainly Miiro, Tom, and Sio.

These characters are all interconnected and part of the whole picture being painted about being a woman and finding a voice and a place in this society. However, there are a lot of characters and it takes a long while to figure out which ones to remember and pay attention to. It seems like I get the main idea of the story and some of the character but there are likely details and story lines I missed as well. Some of the stories are not well developed and leave me wishing the book had dived deeper into that character of story thread.

The beginning of the book introduces an element of magical realism. Unfortunately, that story never develops or goes anywhere. I would love to know if that depiction of a woman's natural state and the way it is housed within a person has to do with Ugandan history or mythology. The books never explains it.

One main reason for my choosing this book is its setting in Uganda. This is possibly the first book I have read set in that nation and culture. The book mentions some of the political struggles in the nation, but that history is not central to this story. The key point of the book is the male-dominated, patriarchy which is clearly depicted. The language and some of the rites and festivals provide insight into culture as well. Diversity and representation in literature matters, and I find fiction a way of introduction to worlds I know nothing about.

The main theme of the book comes together, but perhaps fewer characters and greater depth to each would have created a story that resonated more emotionally.

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

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Vesper Flights

Title:  Vesper Flights
Author:  Helen Macdonald
Publication Information:  Grove Press. 2020. 288 pages.
ISBN:  0802128815 / 978-0802128812

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Back in the sixteenth century, a curious craze began to spread through the halls, palaces and houses of Europe."

Favorite Quote:  "Most of all I hope my work is about a thing that seems to me of the deepest possible importance in our present-day historical moment:  finding ways to recognize and love difference. The attempt to see through eyes that are not your own. To understand that your way of looking at the world is not the only one. To think what it might mean to love those that are not like you. To rejoice in the complexity of things."

I was originally introduced to Helen MacDonald's work through H is for Hawk. I kept reading about the book over a period of time until I finally decided to read it for myself. That book is a poignant journey through grief. Even though I know nothing about hawks or falconing, the emotion of that book resonated through the writing. It spoke to me.

Hence, I was excited to read this book. A "vesper" is an evening prayer. It is a time for contemplation and reflection. Some flights - of the birds - in this book are literal. Others - of thoughts and emotions - are figurative. The title symbolizes what the rest of the book presents - an interplay between philosophy and the natural world.

Vesper Flights is a collection of about 40 essays - some previously published and some new - on a wide variety of topics. In the introduction, the author describes the book as a wunderkammer, a cabinet of curiosity which "held natural and artificial things together on shelves in close conjunction ... The wonder these collections kindled came in part from the ways in which their disparate contents spoke to one another of their similarities and differences in form, their beauties and manifest obscurities.

My review of this book has unfortunately been impacted by the fact that the version I received is one contiguous block of text. Although the finished book is comprised of a set of essays, the version I received has no divisions or other marking between the essays. As such, it is very challenging - if not impossible - to determine where one ends and the other begins. The quality of this writing is that it combines facts about the natural world with philosophical musings and interpretations about life in general. As such, it is not easy to identify topically where the author intended for the reader to pause and reflect on a unit. I am disappointed.

As with H is for Hawk, the writing is beautiful. I find myself underlining sentences. This book is not shy about making its stance and the author's viewpoints clear - whether on politics, climate change, immigration, the politics of climate change, the relationship between humans and the planet we inhabit, the relationships between humans, and other related topics. A reader's reaction to any particular essay will likely depend on their outlook on that issue. However, knowing who Helen MacDonald is and what she does, would you pick up her book if you were not similarly included? Probably not.

Not only does the book traverse topics, it travels to different parts of the globe, pulling in stories that demonstrate the interconnectedness of us all. Even without any overt statements as to that global connection, the compilation itself makes that point.

I think I will have to start this book over with the proper demarkations. I will keep it on my side table, pick it up and read one essay at time, perhaps in order perhaps randomly, at times when I need to feel that connection and grounding in the natural world.

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

Monday, December 14, 2020

The Lions of Fifth Avenue

Title:  The Lions of Fifth Avenue
Author:  Fiona Davis
Publication Information:  Dutton. 2020. 368 pages.
ISBN:  1524744611 / 978-1524744618

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "She had to tell Jack."

Favorite Quote:  "History is made by people in power making decisions, and their notes and writings reveal the decision-making process."

The lions of Fifth Avenue are the two sculptures of lions - Patience and Fortitude - that are found at the entrance to the New York Public Library. The lions were originally names Leo Astor and Leo Lenox after the founders of the library. The new names were given in the 1930s to symbolize the characteristics New Yorkers needed to survive the Depression.

As the title suggests, the book is set in and around the New York Public Library. This aspect is one of the things I have loved about Fiona Davis's books. All of the ones I have read use an iconic New York City building. The books introduce that setting in two time periods and build the stories of two women that in some way link together.

I have enjoyed learning about the buildings and their history although the focus on the building is decreasing with each book that I have read. In some, I have love the stories of both women, and in some, one story is more compelling than the other as is often the case in books with dual timelines.

This book follows the same pattern. The building is the New York Public Library. The times are 1913 and 1993. The women are Laura Lyons and Sadie Donovan.

Laura Lyons lives in an apartment within the library. Her husband is the Library superintendent. She is a wife and a mother to two children. Harry is eleven, and Pearl is seven. For Laura, "time was going by so quickly, and she wanted to do more, be more. The daily chores, the sameness, weighed her down like stones in her pockets. Every day there was yet another dinner to cook, yet another sock to mend." Her story becomes one of feminism and women's rights. Unfortunately, the book chooses to present this as a mutually exclusive choice - career, independence, and ideas vs. home, family, and children. Unfortunately, the book also chooses to introduce an unexpected romance into her story, making her awakening not about independence and equality but a different realization all together.

Sadie is a librarian, recently put in charge of a major collection. She is independent and career focused. However, her thoughts of lack are revealed in repeatedly seeking solace in a book on spinsterhood.

Part of the plot for both women centers on the theft of rare items from the library. Since I love when unrelated books interconnect, I will point out that one of the items stolen in this book is The Tamerlane by Edgar Allen Poe, a book whose history I learned in The Forger's Daughter by Bradford Morrow.

Unfortunately, what really made me the not the reader for this book is the ending. It's hard to say why without a spoiler, but I will attempt to explain. The solution to the mystery of the book thefts in one time period seems unbelievable and in the other is only tangentially related to the main characters. The treatment of the culprits in both scenarios is egregious. Decision made and arguments presented for the abandonment and punishment of the culprits is ridiculous given who the culprits are. Like I said, a cryptic explanation trying not to offer a spoiler.

Unfortunately, for its extremist treatment of a feminist point of view, for its introduction of a romance into what was proceeding to be a story of independence, for its ending, and for the fact the book did not include enough about its historic setting, this book was not for me.

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

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Saving Ruby King

  Saving Ruby King
Author:  Catherine Adel West
Publication Information:  Park Row. 2020. 320 pages.
ISBN:  0778305090 / 978-0778305095

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Ruby wants more than I can give her, but that's how children are."

Favorite Quote:  "'Rebellion even in its smallest forms can eventually birth great change. With change comes hope."

Trigger warning:  This book includes the topics of abuse, murder, violence, domestic violence, and incest.

Southside Chicago. A black community. A church. Two families. Two girls. Ruby and Layla. Best friends.

A murder. An investigation. A community and the police.

This book has the makings of a strong and powerful statement about issues being discussed in the headlines these days. It has the makings of an emotional story of family, loss, and friendship. It has the setup for strong yet vulnerable characters that you want to protect and cheer.

The book does all of that to some extent. However, the telling of the story gets in the way of the story itself, and I find myself lost.

The story begins about two friends - Ruby and Layla. Ruby's mother is murdered, and Ruby is in jeopardy from her abusive father. Layla is the pastor's daughter, but her family has skeletons of its own. The book tries to tell this story from multiple perspectives, past and present. Unfortunately, unless I pay really close attention to the chapter titles and the dates, I find myself lost as to the time frame.

The narrators themselves are interesting for not all are people. There is Ruby, of course and Layla. There are Jackson and Lebanon. Finally, there is Calvary Hope Christian Church. That's right. The church building is a narrator of the story for much happens within those four walls. This is literally a case of "if the walls could talk." Here, the wall not only talk but offer commentary and emotion on the objective events taking place. In addition, there are main characters other than the four human narrators whose stories unfurl within those walls. It's a lot to keep straight.

The connections between the past and the present are not fully explained until the end so it becomes challenging to see the significance of certain names and certain events. In some ways, this book would be easier to read if I had read the ending first. In fact, once the connections are clear, I find myself flipping back through the book to follow the story forward again with the understanding of how the characters and events connect.

This book's attempt to incorporate the issues of racism and the sometimes challenging relationship between the police and the black community also seems out of reach. These issues are sadly very real and need to be talked about and addressed. Unfortunately, in this story, the incorporation of that conversation seems forced and out of place. This is not the story of the investigations into two deaths. It is about the individuals, the families, and the personal relationships that lead to those deaths. Thus, the conversation of racism appears to depict the stereotypes rather than make a real impact.

This book was truly about the generational impact of abuse and how abuse travels through time, turning the abused into the abuser. The story was just told in a nonlinear, noncontiguous way such that the point isn't clear until well into the book. The issues taken up in this book are important, relevant, and considerable. Unfortunately, for most of the book, the emotions and the grasp of those issues seems just out of reach.

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

Monday, December 7, 2020

Big Girl, Small Town

  Big Girl, Small Town
Author:  Michelle Gallen
Publication Information:  John Murray. 2020. 352 pages.
ISBN:  1529304202 / 978-1529304206

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

Opening Sentence:  "Majella kept a list of stuff in her heat that she wasn't keen on."

Favorite Quote:  "She liked things straight. But things weren't like that in Aghybogey. It was a town in which there was nowhere to hide, so people hid stuff in plain sight."

***** BLOG TOUR *****


Majella is twenty-seven years old from a small town in Northern Ireland. She lives with her mother, who is an alcoholic. She works as a fast food restaurant with Marty, a married man with whom she sometimes has intimate physical encounters. Her father disappeared. Her brother died when a bomb he was trying to set accidentally went off. Her grandmother has been murdered. Majella is a "big" girl, and a big point is made about this in the book. "Majella had never left Aghybogey ... She'd never gone further than Bundoran on holiday. She was now a Bogey face, someone people expected to see around the town."

The book description makes it clear that this is Majella's story. At the same time, there is a hint that this book touches upon the "troubles" in Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, the history remains very much at the periphery of this book, which focuses on Majella's day to day routine. This routine does not vary much. She wears the same cloths, does the same things, eats the same food, and watches the same shows day in and day out.

Unfortunately, Majella is a character I do not engage with and her story is not one I care to follow on for many reasons.

Majella as a character does not change or develop much until the very end, and even that epiphany is not really explained or developed. As such, the book takes on a repetitive tone of who orders what at the restaurant, many of Majella's bodily functions, and such mundane things. The book does not really have a plot so character development would be the key to the story.

Some of the descriptions in the book are graphic and off-putting in the language used and the picture they paint. For example, "Majella knew he was watching her are. The thought of it made her want to twitch her arse checks to take the piss. It also gave her a tingle in her cunt." Eeewww!

Northern Ireland has a dialect and language all its own. It can be musical to listen to. This book, however, tells the entire story in this dialect phonetically written. "What canna get chew?" is a line that repeats often as Majella is a restaurant worker. I assume it translates to, "What can I get you?" The writing gets in the way of the reading. Knowing the setting, I would likely hear the lilt in the voices as I read even if the writing was correct English. I don't need to literally see it in writing. It makes the reading challenging and off-putting. My guess is that this book may be a considerably different experience as an audiobook.

The book description touts the humor in the book. Unfortunately, the humor escapes me. I end the book sad for Majella and glad to walk away from the way in which her story is told.

Many articles on this book indicate that Majella's character is on the autism spectrum, which would explain the repetitive routines. I am delighted to see books start to emerge that focus on differently abled characters. Unfortunately, this connection is never made clear in the book itself and does not compensate for the other off-putting aspects of this story. Sadly, I was completely not the reader for this book.

About the Book

Majella is happiest out of the spotlight, away from her neighbors’ stares and the gossips of the small town in Northern Ireland where she grew up during the Troubles. She lives a quiet life caring for her alcoholic mother, working in the local chip shop, and watching the regular customers come and go. She wears the same clothes each day (overalls, too small), has the same dinner each night (fish and chips, microwaved at home after her shift ends), and binge-watches old DVDs of the same show (Dallas, best show on TV) from the comfort of her bed. But underneath Majella’s seemingly ordinary life are the facts that she doesn’t know where her father is and that every person in her town has been changed by the lingering divide between Protestants and Catholics. When Majella’s seemingly mundane existence is upended by the death of her granny, she comes to realize there may be more to life than the gossips of Aghybogey, the pub, and the chip shop. In fact, there just may be a whole big world outside her small town.


About the Author

Michelle Gallen was born in County Tyrone in the mid 1970s and grew up during the Troubles a few miles from the border between what she was told was the "‘Free" State and the "United" Kingdom. She studied English literature at Trinity College Dublin and won several prestigious prizes as a young writer. Following a devastating brain injury in her midtwenties, she co-founded three award-winning companies and won international recognition for digital innovation. She now lives in Dublin with her husband and kids.

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

Saturday, December 5, 2020

We Came Here to Shine

Title:  We came Here to Shine
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Griffin. 2020. 384 pages.
ISBN:  125016978X / 978-1250169785

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Amid dark clouds and steady rain, hundreds of thousands of enthusiastic visitors turned out to watch as President Roosevelt officially opened the 1939 World's Fair yesterday with a rousing speech promoting 'peace and good-will among all nations.'"

Favorite Quote:  "Chance encounters - seeming coincidences of place and time - were fickle. Sometimes such encounters embodied a chemistry and mind of their own, resulting in relationships the were momentous. And sometimes those encounters had as much energy as a speck of inconsequential dust, meant to be overlooked and immediately forgotten."

"... two modern girls, toiling away at the fair for the summer, planting the seeds of our ambition that will bloom into the career of our dreams." Two different approaches to this same goal:
  • "It seems like your biggest problem ... is that you sometimes criticize your inner voice instead of listening to it and letting it guide you to what you really want out of life."
  • "It seems like your biggest problem is that you don't want to play by the rules as they exist in your industry or possibly even in life in general. you want to break them all and get to the top before you turn twenty-five."
Vivi and Max are working at the World's Fair much against either of their wills. Vivi is an actress in Hollywood contracted with a studio, and the studio sends her back to New York on loan to be the star of the Aquacade show at the fair. Max is a New York University journalism student whose dream is to work at The New York Times but whose assigned summer internship lands her at Today at the Fair, a daily publication with the daily schedules and articles at the fair.

The background of the World's Fair is fascinating, particularly given the timing. The 1930s was the time of the Depression in the Unites States and the rise of Hitler in Europe. Part of the objective of creating the fair was to give New York an economic and social boost. The fair opened on the 150th anniversary of George Washington's inauguration. This book, however, is not the story of the Depression or the politics or the war.

This is the story of two women and a story behind the scenes at the fair. Vivi is sent to New York to replace an injured actress as Aquabelle Number One in Billy Rose's Aquacade, a music and dance show of over 500 swimmers performed several times a day. Max is assigned to work at the daily fair paper and, because of a manager who does not believe in female journalists, relegated to the task of assembling the daily schedule rather than write actual articles.

A chance meeting introduces the two women to each other and leads to a friendship. The two agree to help each other. "How about I help you become more of a bull in a china shop and you help me stop breaking all the dishes?" Surrounding the two main characters are other strong women - Ruby, Marianne, and Maria - who play their own role in the sisterhood. Surrounding them are the men of the story, some of whom are supportive and some depict the beliefs of the male dominated society at the time. As expected, there are romances, but fortunately the focus remains on the women not the relationships.

The story goes beyond the career choices of these women to include family and one particularly melodramatic plot line. The book makes several references to the historical basis for the author's earlier book The Subway Girls. The time period of that book is considerably longer than this one, but both are the stories of women and the search for independence, equality, and a voice. This story does not introduce anything really unexpected but at the same time does not wrap up the ending into a neat "lived happily ever" package either. I like the ending for it feels real and a stepping point into the next step of life for these women. Overall, a light, quick, and entertaining read.

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