Friday, January 30, 2009

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

(also reviewed by Emily)

Summary: Freelance writer Walls doesn't pull her punches. She opens her memoir by describing looking out the window of her taxi, wondering if she's "overdressed for the evening" and spotting her mother on the sidewalk, "rooting through a Dumpster." Walls's parents—just two of the unforgettable characters in this excellent, unusual book—were a matched pair of eccentrics, and raising four children didn't conventionalize either of them. Her father was a self-taught man, a would-be inventor who could stay longer at a poker table than at most jobs and had "a little bit of a drinking situation," as her mother put it. With a fantastic storytelling knack, Walls describes her artist mom's great gift for rationalizing. Apartment walls so thin they heard all their neighbors? What a bonus—they'd "pick up a little Spanish without even studying." Why feed their pets? They'd be helping them "by not allowing them to become dependent." While Walls's father's version of Christmas presents—walking each child into the Arizona desert at night and letting each one claim a star—was delightful, he wasn't so dear when he stole the kids' hard-earned savings to go on a bender. The Walls children learned to support themselves, eating out of trashcans at school or painting their skin so the holes in their pants didn't show. Buck-toothed Jeannette even tried making her own braces when she heard what orthodontia cost. One by one, each child escaped to New York City. Still, it wasn't long before their parents appeared on their doorsteps. "Why not?" Mom said. "Being homeless is an adventure."

My Review: While I can't say that this was an enjoyable read, it was strangely addicting. I found myself staying up very late to read "just one more chapter". I also had to continually remind myself that this was a nonfiction book, an memoir of one eccentric childhood, as it's not an account that you would wish to be true for any child. If it had been fiction I would most certainly have had to put it down as it seemed that sooner or later one of the children would be killed by the neglectfulness of their parents. You get the bonus with this nonfiction of knowing that the author's life turned out well against all odds.

Jeannette Walls at no time plays the resentful victim in her tale. Instead she tells her story with love and compassion for her neglectful parents. As a young child she has the same admiration for her parents as all children do, especially for her dad whom she feels incredibly close to. There were points in this story that I even felt a bit of pity for these parents. In her teens she begins to see her mother as selfish and comes to the realization that her dad will never remain sober long enough to keep his promises. At this point she loses faith in her father but gains confidence in her ability to save herself. Jeannette (as well as her brother and sisters) had to grow up very fast but in doing so she grew up strong and noble.

I am in awe of the courage this book must have taken to write. In doing so Jeannette must have had to relive some pretty traumatic childhood memories that I imagine she had previously buried. She weaves an incredibly emotional story that will have the reader giggling one moment and on the verge of tears the next. This story is not an account of childhood neglect and border-line abuse, but rather a lesson in the moral "life is what you make of it".

My Rating: 4.5 Stars This was a hard one for me to rate. It is an amazing, well-written memoir that probably deserves a 5 star rating but the subject matter is so incredibly hard (emotionally) to read that I couldn't bring myself to rate it at the very top.

If I could sum this book up in one sentence it would be: A well-written, inspiring story of an unimaginable childhood filled with extreme highs and lows.

Ahab's Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund


Summary:
The daughter of a tyrannical father, Una leaves the violent Kentucky frontier for the peace of a New England lighthouse island, where she simultaneously falls in love with two young men. Disguised as a boy, she earns a berth on a whaling ship where she encounters the power of nature, death, and madness, and gets her first glimpse of Captain Ahab. As Naslund portrays Una's love for the tragically driven ahab, she magnificently renders a real, living marriage and offers a new perspective on the American experience. Excerpt from book cover.

My Review: When I finished this book I just stared at the page for awhile, then dropped it in my lap and exclaimed "That is a Good Book." I sit to review a beautifully written, intensely detailed novel and can only come up with fragments of sentences to describe it. If is full of some of the hardest life situations imaginable, yet it was uplifting. And solemn. And fun.

I'll let Newsday speak with their review "Naslund has quilted a life for her heroine that meticulously stitches together many of the important issues of the period, including slavery, women's rights, and the crisis of religious belief." And I'll echo another reviewer who called this "a great American novel." Confidently, the author wrote in the time and style of Emerson, Whitman and Hawthorne with a story and language that was poetic, lyrical, descriptive, compelling, heartbreaking, inspiring.

The author gives us a character who grows up through the story telling. It is not a historical fiction with obvious "historical figure-dropping". Instead of expecting a history lesson I gasped in recognition each time such a person arrived, anxious to see how they naturally intersected with Una's life.

This is not a quick or easy read. The book is thick, the pages big and the words poetic. It is also emotional, though luckily with pauses in the action that made it possible for me put it down and savor what I'd read (and go to bed). Even in the last few chapters there were surpises and heartbreaks but finishing it was an utter delight.

My rating: 5 stars, should be a classic.

If I could sum up this book in one sentance: A novel that argues that the gentler sex is the stronger.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Outtakes from a Marriage by Ann Leary

(Also reviewed by Mindy)

Summary: Julia and Joe Ferraro are living the good life in Manhattan now that Joe’s finally made it; he’s the star of a hit TV show and has just been nominated for a Golden Globe award. After many lean years, they’ve got a grand Upper West Side apartment and an Amagansett beach house, and their two kids go to elite private schools. Even better, Julia and Joe are still madly in love.

Or so Julia thinks until the fateful evening when she accidentally hears a voice mail on Joe’s phone— a message left by a sultry-sounding woman who clearly isn’t just a friend. Suddenly Julia is in a tailspin, compulsively checking Joe’s messages, stalking him in cyberspace, and showing up unannounced on his sets, wondering all along if she should confront him. Julia’s search forces her to consider the possibility that in the long process of helping Joe become something, she has become a bit of a “nothing,” as her daughter once described her to her class on career day. A big husband-stalking nothing.

When Julia and Joe first met, she was an edgy East Village girl who wrote music reviews for the Village Voice and threw famed parties in a gritty downtown loft with her friends. Joe was a shy, awkward drama student who followed her around like a lovesick spaniel. After he won her heart, Julia helped Joe evolve into a roguishly handsome charmer who became increasingly obsessed with his looks and his career. Julia, meanwhile, settled into doting motherhood and a new life of comfy clothes and parenting associations.

Now, faced with the looming awards show and the possibility of a destroyed marriage, Julia embarks on an accelerated self-improvement routine of Botox, hair extensions, and erotically charged shrink sessions while dodging the sancti-mommies who lie in wait for her at her son’s preschool each day.

A unique take on the perennially popular issue of women trying not to lose themselves in matrimony and motherhood, Outtakes from a Marriage is expertly and humorously set against the Manhattan preschool mafia, the Hollywood machine, and the ticking clock of a waiting red carpet.

My Review: I can't explain why I loved this book, but I did. It may be the funny and witty main character, Julia Ferraro. Here is a woman who, while raising two children, has given all she has to help her husband climb to the top and in the process discovers that she has let go of her own dreams. Yet she isn't resentful of this. I believe that during the book Julia actually realizes that life was more fun before the money and fame. There is a small lesson in appreciating the small stuff. It's not how much you have that makes life more exciting, it's what you make of what you have.

I would not have thought I could relate to a celeb mother but in some small ways I believe most mothers would be able to relate to her. This is probably in part due to Leary's writing style which is simple and not overly focused on the celebrity aspect. Leary writes about many different situations that we as mothers find ourselves in. She is able to weave humor throughout the book. I was actually laughing out loud in parts. This is not a very thought-provoking read but it is fun and light-hearted. I would definitely recommend this book.

My Rating: 4 Stars, loved the novel but hated the end. It wasn't a poorly written ending or anything. It was just that things didn't end the way I wanted them to.

If I had to sum this book up in one sentence it would be: A humorous vacation away from reality.

A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park

Summary: Tree-ear is an orphan boy in a twelfth-century Korean potters' village. For a long time he is content to live with Crane-man under a bridge, barely surviving on scraps of food. All of that changes when Tree-ear sees master potter Min making his beautiful pottery. Tree-ear sneaks into Min's workplace and dreams of creating his own pots someday. When he accidentally breaks a pot, he must work for the master to pay for the damage. Though the work is long and hard, Tree-ear is eager to learn. Then he is sent to the King's court to show the master's pottery. Little does Tree-ear know that this difficult and dangerous journey will change his life forever.

My review: I've been interested in ceramics/pottery since I was a little girl. For most of my elementary education, I attended a school that had a great deal of money (no thanks to my family), and its own kiln. Our art classes, on occasion, actually consisted of molding clay into the obligatory ash tray or bowl and then glazing and firing it. It was a very cool experience for me and one that has always fascinated me.
So, imagine my delight when I picked up this book, based solely on its Newberry award, and found not only a charming story, but a detailed description of ancient Korean pottery practices. In general, I really appreciated this book for its attention to detail--for describing the pottery process and delving into Korean history and folklore along the way. I was awed by the amount of work that went into getting the clay ready to use, let alone the time and effort went into making and firing even ONE dish. While I found the details of this story more interesting than the story itself, I feel that is more a personal thing, and that a child would probably find it quite the opposite.
In "A Single Shard," Tree-ear (like me) has always been fascinated by pottery. His dilemma is more financial, because as an orphan living under a bridge, he has few prospects. Still, he squirrels himself away and spies on the master potter Min until curiosity lands him in the middle of a big mess and very much indebted to the man he so admires. Tree-ear begins to work without pay for Min, secretly harboring the hope that someday Min will teach him the trade he so desperately wants to learn. When an embassy comes to town, looking for unique pottery to commission for the King, the town sizzles with competition. As the story progresses, and dreams are dashed and reformed, Tree-Ear is forced to make a long journey to visit the King's emissary and, when disaster strikes, must make a very difficult decision. There are several supporting characters, like Ajima and Crane-man that are quite lovable and help to advance the story and message of the book.
Ultimately, I found this story to be heart warming and well-written with just the right amount of historical detail (too much and you fall asleep, you know). I also enjoyed traveling to a culture, time, and place that was unfamiliar to me and living there briefly albeit in my mind.** This book also has powerful messages on honesty, bravery, and persistence which seem to be novel ideas for children's literature now-a-days. The main message of "A Single Shard" seemed to be that hard-work pays off. Not only for Tree-Ear but for Min as well. There will always be people out there willing to make shoddy work for extra cheap....but the really amazing pieces will always take time, effort, and patience. I'm sure there's a lesson in there somewhere....maybe something about authors who knock off books every two months versus those who take their time. Hmmmm.......

**the primary reason I liked "Eat, Pray, Love"

My rating: 4 (It's hard for me to give a five to anything that took me 2 weeks to read. It's nothing personal. I just don't feel that connection if it takes me that long, even if its just because I have no free time.)

If I could sum this book up in one phrase it would be: Definitely worth your time.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Used World by Haven Kimmel

Summary: "It was mid-December in Jonah, Indiana, a place where Fate can be decided by the weather, and a storm was gathering overhead." So Haven Kimmel, bestselling author of A Girl Named Zippy, prepares us to enter The Used World -- a world where big hearts are frequently broken and sometimes repaired; where the newfangled and the old-fashioned battle it out in daily encounters both large and small; where wondrous things unfold just beneath the surface of everyday life; and where the weather is certainly biblical and might just be prophetic.

Hazel Hunnicutt's Used World Emporium is a sprawling antique store that is "the station at the end of the line for objects that sometimes appeared tricked into visiting there." Hazel, the proprietor, is in her sixties, and it's a toss-up as to whether she's more attached to her mother or her cats. She's also increasingly attached to her two employees: Claudia Modjeski -- freakishly tall, forty-odd years old -- who might finally be undone by the extreme loneliness that's dogged her all of her life; and Rebekah Shook, pushing thirty, still living in her fervently religious father's home, and carrying the child of the man who recently broke her heart. The three women struggle -- separately and together, through relationships, religion, and work -- to find their place in this world. And it turns out that they are bound to each other not only by the past but also by the future, as not one but two babies enter their lives, turning their formerly used world brand-new again.

My Review: This is a novel that is difficult to review without giving away too much of the plot. This story centers around three woman at various stages in their lives, with religion playing a large role in the plot. Rebekah has left the Pentecostal cult-like church she was raised in, and in the process of finding herself ends up unwed, pregnant and homeless. Claudia is a freakishly tall and lonely woman who also no longer believes in the religion she was brought up with. She is in the process of finding her true identity as well. Hazel is the owner of the little shop both the previously mentioned women work in. She is eccentric with some mild psychic abilities and a strong belief in astrology. Although she comes across as a strong character, she is bogged down with guilt and must find a way to let the past go.

This novel started very slow for me. The author attended seminary school, so it should not come as no surprise that she adds religion into the book, which was fine by me as I usually find the religious views of others somewhat interesting. However the first 50 pages or so of this novel read almost like a sermon. I felt that the author was trying too hard to fit religion into the book and thus was piling it into spots where it did not neatly fit.

I was also disappointed that the author thought she needed to put so many similarities into the characters. All were trying to find their footing in the world. All has issues with their relationship with their fathers. All had similar lifestyle preferences, which I can not discuss further without giving away too much of the plot. Considering this was set in a small town, I felt that this abundance of similarities lend to the story being somewhat unbelievable.

All that being said, I did find the novel to contain some very thought-provoking moments. One of my favorite scenes has Hazel speaking to Claudia about her deceased mother. Hazel says to Claudia "You didn't know everything about your mother. You only know yourself in relation to her... You're just telling a story called Ludie. You've made up a character who stands in a spot and fulfills certain needs and is rounded by your perfect imagination of her." It really made me think about how we all just make up the characters in our lives around who they are in relationship to us and also of the story we tell others about ourselves.

The redeeming of this book came in the last 50 pages. This is the point where almost all the threads were tied together in an unexpected twist (with the exception of one of Hazel's visions that I still can't figure out where it ties in). I could not put the book down when I arrived at this point and I was left wishing for more when the book came to a close. I am still thinking about the characters in this novel and have come away really enjoying them.

My Rating: 3.5 Stars (most of it at a 3 but the end was a 4+), will probably recommend this book to a few people and will definitely be thinking about it in the future.

If I could sum this book up in one phrase it would be: A leisurely float trip with some exciting rapids at the end to give you something to talk about and remember.

The Creative Family by Amanda Blake Soule

Summary:
When you learn to awaken your family’s creativity, wonderful things will happen: you’ll make meaningful connections with your children in large and small ways; your children will more often engage in their own creative discoveries; and your family will embrace new ways to relax, play, and grow together. With just the simple tools around you—your imagination, basic art supplies, household objects, and natural materials—you can transform your family life, and have so much more fun!

Perfect for all families, the wide range of projects presented here offers ideas for imaginative play, art and crafts, nature explorations, and family celebrations. This book embraces a whole new way of living that will engage your children’s imagination, celebrate their achievements, and help you to express love and gratitude for each other as a family. From Amazon.com Product Description.

Visit the author's blog at http://www.soulemama.com/soulemama/

My Review: This book sat on the "New Non-fiction" table at my library and I so many times I wanted to borrow it. But my family is so young I always thought " I should wait." But oh it tempted me and finally I gave in.

Then I read the introduction and realized it was about 15x as "granola" and self-indulgent as I'm comfortable with in my life and I almost put it down. (True, I'd love to be more granola, it just sort of makes me feel claustrophobic in large doses.) BUT I kept reading and was hooked by the first chapter which shared the beautiful thought that preparing for creativity necessitates having and showing GRATITUDE.

As I read more I felt both inspired and calmed by the authors attitude and ideas. There were some that I won't do, one I've started already, and others that I'll write down and hopefully do later but in all likelihood forget. That is probably another reason I wanted to put the book down at the beginning, my definite feeling of inadequacy when comparing my aspirations with my accomplishments. But no no no - this book was INSPIRATIONING and here are the things I'd like to remember (yes, this is doubling as a personal reference list):

Inspiration bulletin board, folder, wall or string - a place to put various clippings of things that
creatively inspire you, and one for your child.
Have a single place for all the craft stuff.
Have some art supplies that belong to each individual (ie. a pencil roll)
Have simple, natural toys that grow with the child (grandparents, are you listening?)
Using found or re-purposed materials to add texture to your life.
The ubiquitous dress up box.
Family drawing time.
Wall of framed Childrens art.
Teaching hand crafts - embroidery, sewing, knitting.
Nature walks
Children's garden plots (small)
Nature table - collections of found objects related to the season
Art night with friends
Handmade holidays
Felt Crown for the birthday child.

You know, after trying to summarize the ideas I liked in the book I think I've decided I need to own this book in order to remember the smaller details of the ideas, instead of spending days copying down the ideas into my little notebook.

And speaking of that - if anyone has ideas for other books like this (ie. activities for children) I'd love to hear about them in the comments, or in a separate review.

My rating: 4 stars

If I could summarize in one sentence: If only I lived in Maine I'm sure I'd actually do the things suggested in this book.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Smoke Screen by Sandra Brown

Summary:"New York Times" bestselling author Sandra Brown returns with a tale of corruption and betrayal, revenge and reversal - where friends become foes, and heroes become criminals in the ultimate abuse of power.
When newswoman Britt Shelley wakes up to find herself in bed with Jay Burgess, a rising star detective in the Charleston PD, she remembers nothing of how she got there...or of how Jay wound up dead.
Handsome and hard-partying, Jay was a hero of the disastrous fire that five years earlier had destroyed Charleston's police headquarters. The blaze left seven people dead, but the death toll would have been much higher if not for the bravery of Jay and three other city officials who risked their lives to lead others to safety.
Firefighter Raley Gannon, Jay's lifelong friend, was off-duty that day. Though he might not have been a front-line hero, he was assigned to lead the investigation into the cause of the fire. It was an investigation he never got to complete. Because on one calamitous night, Raley's world was shattered.
Scandalized, wronged by the people he trusted most, Raley was forced to surrender the woman he loved and the work to which he'd dedicated his life. For five years his resentment against the men who exploited their hero status to further their careers -- and ruin his -- had festered, but he was helpless to set things right.
That changes when he learns of Jay Burgess's shocking death and Britt Shelley's claim that she has no memory of her night with him. As the investigation into Jay's death intensifies, and suspicion against Britt Shelley mounts, Raley realizes that the newswoman, Jay's last sexual conquest, might be his only chance to get personal vindication-- and justice for the seven victims of the police station fire.
But there are powerful men who don't want to address unanswered questions about the fire and who will go to any lengths to protect their reputations. As Raley and Britt discover more about what happened that fateful day, the more perilous their situation becomes, until they're not only chasing after the truth but running for their lives.
Friends are exposed as foes, heroes take on the taint of criminals, and no one can be trusted completely. A tale about audacious corruption -- and those with the courage to expose it.
My Review: I am kind of proud and kind of ashamed to say that I have read about 90% of Sandra Browns books. I have liked some and others I have not liked AT ALL.
In Smoke Screen Sandra takes a very basic template for mystery writing and actually makes you think that this novel different from all the others out there.
I enjoyed the book on a superficial level, but I did not "miss" the characters when I was done, which is how I truly test the quality of a book.
From the moment the book begins you have trouble telling whether or not you actually like the main character. She comes of as kind of arrogant and the typical "cheerleader all grown up" . Not really someone you can identify with. However, by the third chapter you find yourself liking her despite all of that.
Raley's character is smart and sexy as hell, but he too lacks a certain depth. I found that the struggles he reflects on throughout the story are heartbreaking, but a little far fetched.
I did really like this book. I am always hard on authors that I have come to expect a certain quality from. Normally, Sandra is not as predictable. I always appreciate a book that gives me twists and turns that I don't see coming. This is a book where bad is bad, good is good, and hero's prevail (Sorry, did I give to much away?).
To be fair: There was one part that I did NOT see coming, and it was rather intense.
My Review: 4
If I could sum up this book in one phrase it would be: The guilty pleasure of sexy drama.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Belle (Once Upon a Time Series)

by Cameron Dokey

Summary: Belle is convinced she has the wrong name, as she lacks her sisters' awe-inspiring beauty. So she withdraws from society, devoting her time to woodcarving. Secretly Belle longs to find the fabled Heartwood Tree. If carved by the right hands, the Heartwood will reveal the face of one's true love. During a fierce storm, Belle's father stumbles upon the mysterious Heartwood--and encounters a terrifying and lonely Beast. Now Bell must carve the Heartwood to save her father and learn to see not with the eyes of her mind, but with the eyes of her heart.

My review: I said I wasn't going to review any more of these, but it's amazing what a few days of sickness will do to a girl. Lately I've been too crazy busy to read until I was laid low, along with one of my kids. Now I have an excellent excuse to read all day while my kids watch movies. I really enjoyed this retelling of Beauty and the Beast. It had some nice romantic moments, comforting similarities to the original story, and changes that I really enjoyed. The Beast was still a Beast in the literal sense of the word, but much more of a gentleman than in other stories. Belle's sisters were not the usual irritating twits (that gets a little old) which made them far more likeable. Belle also possessed a unique talent for woodcarving, and seeing the true forms hidden within the wood, that played a huge part in the plot. The theme throughout the story seemed to be seeing someone clearly with your heart, and loving them for who they are despite what your eyes may show you. My only real critique was that a little over three-fourths of the book was dedicated to setting up the story, characters, etc. and only 60 pages were left for the Belle and Beast storyline. I really wanted to have more time with those two and wouldn't have minded an additional 60 pages of interaction. All in all, I really enjoyed it, wished it were longer, and found that Cameron Dokey's writing seemed, yet again, to be much better than other OUAT contributors.

My rating: 3.5 stars for enjoyment (it was higher but I couldn't believe that they only gave me roughly 60 pages of the Beauty/Beast interaction). I plan on buying it, along with a few of her others, so my girls can read them later, and I can read them again.

If I could sum this book up in one phrase it would be: A very pleasant and romantic way to spend the afternoon--especially when you can't move because you feel gross (not prego gross--to clarify--just gross).

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch

Also reviewed by Emily

Summary: A lot of professors give talks titled "The Last Lecture." Professors are asked to consider their demise and to ruminate on what matters most to them. And while they speak, audiences can't help but mull the same question: What wisdom would we impart to the world if we knew it was our last chance? If we had to vanish tomorrow, what would we want as our legacy?

When Randy Pausch, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon, was asked to give such a lecture, he didn't have to imagine it as his last, since he had recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer. But the lecture he gave--"Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams"--wasn't about dying. It was about the importance of overcoming obstacles, of enabling the dreams of others, of seizing every moment (because "time is all you have...and you may find one day that you have less than you think"). It was a summation of everything Randy had come to believe. It was about living.

In this book, Randy Pausch has combined the humor, inspiration and intelligence that made his lecture such a phenomenon and given it an indelible form. It is a book that will be shared for generations to come.

My Review: Before beginning this book I decided to watch The Last Lecture. I believe doing this added a lot of personality to the book that would have been missed otherwise. There is information in the lecture that was not included in the book and visa-versa. The two seem to be meant to go hand and hand. Therefore I would encourage anyone wanting to read the book to also take an hour and watch Randy Paursch's lecture.

I can't say that I got anything profound out of the book but a did enjoy the gentle reminders about how life is best lived. I loved the humor Randy was able to build into his examples. And I enjoyed that although the situation was sad, the book is in no way a pity party and for the most part is upbeat. Here are my favorite points from the book:

  • Don't use material things to communicate your identity to others
  • Don't obsess over what other people think
  • Don't complain, just work harder
  • Show Gratitude
  • Give EVERYONE a chance to impress you
  • Brick walls are there for a reason, not to keep us out but to show us how badly we want something
  • Go out and do for others what somebody else did for you
  • Always tell the truth
  • All you have to do is ask
  • There is power in humility
  • Don't have specific goals for your children, encourage them to develop their own
My Rating: 4 Stars, a quick, easy and pleasant read

If I had to sum this book up in one sentence it would be: A reminder on what's really important in life.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

Also reviewed by Kari.

Summary: One of the most famous and well-loved gothic novels of the 20th century, Rebecca is a novel of mystery and passion, a dark psychological tale of secrets and betrayal, dead loves and an estate called Manderley that is as much a presence as the humans who inhabit it: "when the leaves rustle, they sound very much like the stealthy movement of a woman in evening dress, and when they shiver suddenly and fall, and scatter away along the ground, they might be the pitter, patter of a woman's hurrying footsteps, and the mark in the gravel the imprint of a high-heeled satin shoe." Manderley is filled with memories of the elegant and flamboyant Rebecca, the first Mrs. DeWinter; with the obsessive love of her housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, who observes the young, timid second Mrs. DeWinter with sullen hostility; and with the oppressive silences of a secretive husband, Maxim. Rebecca may be physically dead, but she is a force to contend with, and the housekeeper's evil matches that of her former mistress as a purveyor of the emotional horror thrust on the innocent Mrs. DeWinter. The tension builds as the new Mrs. DeWinter slowly grows and asserts herself, surviving the wicked deceptions of Mrs. Danvers and the silent deceits of her husband, to emerge triumphant in the midst of a surprise ending that leaves the reader with a sense of haunting justice.

My Review: I did not realize this was a classic novel published in 1938 when I first picked up the book (I know, where have I been!). Therefore I was a little annoyed at the writing style. It was making me crazy that there was no letter "z" in the book ( realise instead of realize and apologise instead of apologize). It is also very detailed, almost to the point of being painful in the beginning. I find this true with many books written in this era.

I can now understand why this book would be considered a classic. The writing style is one that allows the reader to be immersed in the story. I thoroughly enjoyed how the author told the story in the first person. I also liked that the narrator character is never given a first name, leaving the reader to wonder.

Included within this novel is a wonderful combination of characters. First there is the narrator who begins as a shy, innocent girl and develops through the story into a women with confidence to run this elaborate household. You have the mean, nasty ,vengeful head housekeeper. Every good story needs a villain. There is also the handsome widow and owner of Manderley, whom weds the narrator early in the novel. As well as a good mix of quirky towns people.

The plot is a little on the dark side and centers around secrets. I found myself immersed in the book, as long as I skimmed over some of the elaborate details. Though at times the plot was rather predictable, I must admit that the ending turned out to be an unexpected twist. I found "Rebecca" be thoroughly enjoyable.

My Rating: 4 Stars, I feel that this is one of those books I would enjoy more the second time through.

If I could sum this book up in one sentence it would be: A classic that one should read at least once.

Admissions by Nancy Lieberman

Summary: The Tuesday after Labor Day marks the official start of private school admission season, the affluent Manhattan parents' version of blood sport. But for Helen Drager, mother of Zoe, it shouldn't be such an ordeal. After all, Helen's best friend Sara is an admissions officer at Zoe's current K-8. But Sara's position becomes more precarious, and Helen soon finds herself drawn ever deeper into the mounting lunacy generated by the fierce competition. Will her husband, a TV Food Network producer, consent to creating a show around the Headmistress of the Fancy Girls School to give Zoe an edge there?If so, it just might help her compete with her former friend Claire, whose family vacation in Provence was devoted to ingratiating themselves to the Headmistress who runs a cooking school there. Helen depends on her friendship with Sara to help her through this troubled time - but Sara has problems of her own. Her boss, Pamela, Head of The School, is growing drunk with her own power, making capricious decisions about school admissions policy, kowtowing to celebrity children in ways that are strictly against the school's philosophy, and just plain disappearing from sight during school hours. Will Pamela undermine the reputation of The School? Will Zoe get into the school of her choice? Will the Dragers have to donate a small nation to accomplish this goal?

My Review: Let me begin by saying that when I picked up this book I believed it would be a satire on the Kindergarten admissions process that families on the East coast partake in. I thought I would be laughing out loud at all the crazy antics these people go through in order to get their child into the "right" school. I did not get any of this and, therefore, am very disappointed.
This book turned out to focus more on the high school admissions process for the children that went to a K-8 school, otherwise refereed to in the book as The School. It also focused on the Head of the School, Pamela, and how corrupt she was by accepting bribes for referrals and so on. It did touch on the Kindergarten admissions process by including a character, Sara, who worked under Pamela and was supposed to be in charge of interviewing and accepting Kindergarten. admissions. However discussion on the Kindergarten parents seeking admissions was limited and a lot of what was there was over-the-top.
Overall, I feel the book was poorly written. The author seemed to forget details included in the previous pages and then switch things up in the following chapters. Her characters were unbelievable. The 8th graders did not act like adolescents and the adults spoke more like teens. One of the main mothers in the book, Helen, is quoted as saying "Icchh" in every other sentence she speaks. It's fairly annoying. Another thing a found extremely distracting was the relationship between Helen and another 8th grade father. I did not feel this almost-affair fit well with the book and was just thrown into the story in a failed attempt to add some entertainment value.
On a more positive note the titles chosen for the schools were somewhat humorous, i.e. The Pretty Gil's School, The Progressive School, The School for Brainy Girls, etc. Also I think this book will bring up some pretty interesting discussion points during book club including doing what is best for our children rather than for our personal images and the undue pressure finding the "right" school may put on our children.
To sum it up, this is not a book I would recommend. I will not be reading it again, not will I be searching for other books by the same author (in fact I will probably avoid them at all costs). Had it not been a book club selection, I would have probably not bothered finishing it.

My Rating: 1.5 Stars, the worst book I have read in a long time.

If I had to sum this book up in one phrase it would be: Icchh, not at all what I expected.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You by Amy Bloom

Summary: In Amy Bloom's brilliant new short story collection, lives are illuminated in the midst of darkness, of thwarted and unexpected love, of families made and found. These are people we know and are, people we long to be and fear we may become: a mother grieves for her beloved daughter and the handsome young man surgery will make her; a woman with breast cancer, a frightened husband, and a best friend all discover that their lifelong triangle is not what any of them imagined; a couple survives the death of their newborn to find themselves in mortal combat with the world.

Sensuous, heartbreaking, spare, and laugh-out-loud funny, these tales take us straight to the unpredictable heart of real life, with rare generosity and wit....And it is love, in each of these eight mesmerizing stories, that we follow through uncertainty and hope, through the betrayals and gifts of the body, and it is Bloom's flawless prose that leads us.

My review: This collection of short stories was far different from my usual book choice. I've been trying to branch out lately, and branch I did. In fact, I might be in a completely different tree. Despite the difference in storyline, I dove in and soon my head was filled with silence--nothing but flowing words on the page and my heart thudding, breaking, and mending along with the stories. Did I like it? You'd think so, but not particularly. I mean, the subject matter was definitely not to my liking. The characters did things that I simply wouldn't do (though as fictional characters, I'm obligated to forgive them). I read about the complexities of gender confusion, the brutality of cancer, the loss of a child, of a mother, infidelity, terminal illness, the neglected child, and the incompetent parenting. In short, these stories were not pleasant. In fact, they were nothing if not terrifyingly and excruciatingly painful. They were not about life as we want it to be (the fairytale existence that I'm so fond of), but of a harsh, gritty reality--of a life as it really, truly, unfortunately IS--and for that I cannot complain. Of the stories, the two I liked best were "Stars at Elbow and Foot" and "The Story" both concerning the deaths of young children and their mothers' differing attempts to regain life and happiness after such an catastrophic loss. The loss of a child is something that we all fear and I couldn't help but be struck by the anguish of these woman--the despair and anger that they felt. Despite some of the subject matter, I found the stories to be brutally honest, compelling and well-written. They got under your skin and put in you in a place you would rather not be, thinking thoughts that you would rather not think about a life you'd rather not live.

It's possible that someone else--someone less sheltered than me (in the life of the average Mormon) might find more meaning in these stories. I felt close to the characters, and shared their pain while reading the story but couldn't help but feel distanced from them in my everyday life. With the exception of my two "favorites" I didn't identify with them. Perhaps I need to live longer. Someone who had similar experiences to the people in these stories would, I think, understand them more fully and give this book a higher rating.

My rating: 3 stars. Well written, but I won't read it again. Definitely ADULT fiction. Some swearing and sexual situations, though brief and not really central to the story...which makes it all the more annoying...since it wasn't necessary. Not for my mom (if that helps).

If I could sum this book up in one phrase it would be: A painfully honest glimpse into the life of that person you see on the street, walking down the hall, or in your own home.

Mindy's Favorite Books (for now)

Young Adult Fiction
Catching Fire - Suzanne Collins *(RFS Review)
The City of Ember - Jeanne DuPrau *(RFS Review)
A Countess Below Stairs - Eva Ibbotson *(RFS Review)
Ender's Game - Orson Scott Card
Esperanza Rising - Pam Munoz Ryan
The Giver - Lois Lowry *(RFS Review)
Goose Girl (and series) - Shannon Hale
The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins *(RFS Review)
The Schwa Was Here - Neal Shusterman *(RFS Review)
Twilight Saga - Stephenie Meyer *(RFS Review)
Uglies Series - Scott Westerfeld

Fiction
Alas Babylon - Pat Frank

Blackbird House - Alice Hoffman
Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas
The DaVinci Code - Dan Brown
Ella Minnow Pea - Mark Dunn *(RFS Review)
Girl with a Pearl Earring - Tracy Chevalier *(RFS Review)
Good in Bed - Jennifer Weiner
The Help - Kathryn Stockett *(RFS Review)
House of Gentle Men - Kathy Hepinstall
How to Cook a Tart - Nina Killham
Like Water for Chocolate - Laura Esquivel
The Reapers are the Angels - Alden Bell *(RFS Review)
The School of Essential Ingredients - Erica Bauermeister *(RFS Review)
The Secret Life of Bees - Sue Monk Kidd *(RFS Review)
Tell No One - Harlan Coben
The Thirteen Tale - Diane Setterfield *(RFS Review)
Where the Heart Is - Billie Letts *(RFS Review)
The Year of Pleasures - Elizabeth Berg

Non FictionClose to Shore: The Terrifying Shark Attacks of 1916 - Michael Capuzzo
Princess: Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia - Jean Sasson
The Prize Winner of Defiance Ohio - Terry Ryan
Three Cups of Tea - Greg Mortensen and David Relin *(RFS Review)
Eat, Pray, Love - Elizabeth Gilbert
Tales of a Female Nomad - Rita Golden Gelman *(RFS Review)
The Gift of Fear - Gavin De Becker *(RFS Review)

Children's
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs - Judi Barrett *(RFS Review)
I Like Myself - Karen Beaumont *(RFS Review)
Llama Llama Red Pajama - Anna Dewdney

The Soloist by Steve Lopez

Summary:
While scurrying back to his office one day Steve Lopez, a columnist for the L.A. Times
, is stopped short by the ethereal strains of violin music. Searching for the sound, he spots a homeless man coaxing those beautiful sounds from a battered two-string violin. When the man finishes, Lopez compliments him briefly and rushes off to write about his newfound subject, Nathaniel Ayers, the homeless violinist. Over the next few days, Lopez discovers that Nathaniel was once a promising classical bass student at Juilliard, but that various pressures—including being one of a few African-American students and mounting schizophrenia—caused him to drop out. Enlisting the help of doctors, mental health professionals and professional musicians, Lopez attempts to help Nathaniel move off Skid Row, regain his dignity, develop his musical talent and free himself of the demons induced by the schizophrenia. Throughout, Lopez endures disappointments and setbacks with Nathaniel's case, questions his own motives for helping his friend and acknowledges that Nathaniel has taught him about courage and humanity. -By Publisher's Weekly via Amazon.com

My Review: This was a great “feel good” story of how two people can have a positive impact in each other’s lives. I also thought it was fairly good at de-stigmatizing homelessness as caused by mental illness, schizophrenia in particular. I love reading non-fiction biographical because I don’t have to worry about the author throwing in “dramatic” plot turns that I find manipulating. Of course, my cynical nature showed through as I neared the end of the book, waiting for the “horrible” thing to happen, which, I’ll just tell you and save you some anxiety, did not happen. The story ends on a high note (no pun intended) and has nice closure, leaving you with the assumption that things continue either at status quo or improving.

The content of the book does have some political/social commentary but not in an over the top way. It is really just in an “I want to show you something you many not know” way. It did have just a bit too much “soul-searching” by the author himself, but even that wasn’t embarrassingly sappy. It was probably necessary, in fact, to point out the positive impact that both heroes had in each other’s life.

For me personally, it has inspired me to give a bit more thought to classical music. There were many passages in the book talking about how music written 150 years ago is creating harmony and peace in the modern life of this musician, Nathaniel. That really struck me. I definitely understand the English language more that “musical language” but the fact of the matter is, over time, many of the classics (Shakespeare, the Bible, transcendentalists) have become difficult to relate to, simply because of the changing nature of language and culture. In contrast, the organization of sounds that make up music, once it has stood the test of time, generally remains approachable and understandable, even to a beginner and even in relationship to current compositions.

As for the fact that this book is soon to be released as a movie - in this case, because the real strength of the book is the story itself, with the journalistic writing style acting as a quiet vehicle for telling it, I see no harm in just waiting to see the movie. Perhaps I’ll revisit that statement after actually seeing the movie. I look forward to Jamie Foxx’s interpretation of Nathaniel, the homeless, schizophrenic artist, and of the visual presentation of his Skid Row stomping grounds. Not that I revel in seeing such suffering, but I expect it to be intriguing and compelling.

Edited August 9, 2009 - I just saw the movie and would like to change my statement. While the movie is definately well done, there is a LOT of detail and social background from the book missing in the movie. You get a good story in the movie but not the complete story. Don't skip the book!

My rating: 4 stars - compelling story, but not life changing.

If I could sum this book up in one phrase it would be: Recommended reading for: musicians, mental health & social workers, law-enforcement, public policy makers, people who want to know things, people who care about other people, journalists.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Summary: A beguiling mix of politics, magic, romance, and sex, the saga of the mysterious history of the Buendia family of the village of Macondo does nothing less than recapitulate the entire history of the human race. Written with little regard for traditional novelistic conventions, Garcia Marquez's novel incorporates emotional responses in lieu of plot, a cyclical approach to fractured time lines, and many different characters with similar or identical names. The first of a wave of Spanish-language novels characterized by what came to be known as magical realism, ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE was an immediate success on its initial publication and was translated into more than 40 languages. It established Garcia Marquez as one of the preeminent authors of his generation.

My Review: Jose Arcadio Buendia is forced to kill a man who insulted his wife, Ursula, and is forced to move away from his town. However,the murder will chase him for one hundred years in the form of a curse. He begins his journey through many lands and jungles until he finds a new place for his family: Macondo. Macondo turns into a place for merchant gypsies to arrive and bring the most recent 'discoveries' such as ice and magnet. One of them, Melquiades, visits Jose Arcadio and promotes the study of alchemy. Jose Arcadio goes mad and as he intensifies this learning, strange events --presumably from the curse--begin to isolate Macondo from the rest of the country, such as an epidemic that make people forget what they just did or saw. As the story continues , Ursula gives birth to many children, and each of them is given their own sub- story, but finally all of them are linked together by the same curse of living in solitude.
This is one of those book that sounds so so so so good when you read the back cover, and then is not at all what you expected it to be. I found the style of writing to be odd, at best. He takes the plot and seems to turn it into a series of emotional reactions, rather then a solid story. I loved the idea behind the book , and the message is strong, but I would have liked to have more complete content.

My Rating: 2 stars not something I would ever pick up again.

If I could sum this book up in one phrase it would be: It is a shame that GGM couldn't maintain the high standards he set with "Love in the Time of Cholera".

Monday, January 5, 2009

A Countess Below Stairs by Eva Ibbotson

Previously Reviewed by Mindy

Summary: After the Russian revolution turns her world topsy-turvy, Anna, a young Russian countess, has no choice but to flee to England. Penniless, Anna hides her aristocratic background and takes a job as servant in the household of the esteemed Westerholme family, armed only with an outdated housekeeping manual and sheer determination. Desperate to keep her past a secret, Anna is nearly overwhelmed by her new duties—not to mention her instant attraction to Rupert, the handsome earl of Westerholme. To make matters worse, Rupert appears to be falling for her as well. As their attraction grows stronger, Anna finds it more and more difficult to keep her most dearly held secrets from unraveling. And then there’s the small matter of Rupert’s beautiful and nasty fiancee. . . .

My Review: I must admit that I was a bit thrown by the prologue to this novel. The story is set in Russia and England at a period around the first World War, therefore many of the terms, and the writing style, were foreign to me. I had to read the prologue twice and still began the first chapter with some hesitation.
However, the first chapter hooked me. I fell in love with these characters. With the sweet countess, the quirky neighbors, the handsome Earl, the grandmotherly head housekeeper and the nasty fiancee, you wind up with the perfect mix of characters. While reading it you get swept into their world and really feel like part of the story.
Though not the most thought-provoking book, "The Countess Under the Stairs" is a magically fairytale. It reminds a little of "Cinderella". It is one of those books that you can't put down, yet don't want to finish. The story is memorable, yet I can't wait to read it again. Truly delightful.

My Rating: 5 Stars, I really enjoyed this book

If I could sum this book up in one sentence it would be: A big, huge curtsy to Eva Ibbotson for bring us such a delightful book.

Pandora's Daughter by Iris Johansen

Summary: Orphaned at 15 and raised by her Uncle Phillip, the adult Megan Blair is an Atlanta pediatrician who hears terrified voices. Revelation comes when childhood friend Neal Grady, who is now a shadowy government agent, arrives to apprise Megan of her psychic powers. And to warn her: Molino-the relentless villain who killed Megan's mother, believing her touch killed his son-is targeting Megan next. Molino thinks Megan was born to an ancient Sephardic family of psychics, and plans to force her to reveal the location of the Ledger, a book that contains the family's secrets and finances. He then plans to kill her, if Megan, Neal and Neal's sidekick, Jed Hartley, don't find him first.

My Review: This book started off as a fast-paced thriller and then lost it momentum after the first 50 pages. I never really connected with any of the characters and found the dialog between them boring and somewhat fake. The heroine was weak and whiny. There is no background on the hero and he doesn't seem to fit well with the other characters. And the romance between the two was predictable and boring. The villains were overly sinister. How many ugly crimes against humanity does the villain have to commit to make the reader dislike him? I'd say Johansen could have left out a few or just not embellished so much.
This is not a book I will be recommending. I know this author is capable of better.

My Rating: 2 Stars, maybe slightly generous but the idea behind the plot was good. I am reserving 1 star for those books I can't get through!

If I could sum this book up in one phrase it would be: A disappointing read from an author whose books I generally enjoy.

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