Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Remember Me; The Return; The Last Story

Remember Me; The Return; The Last Story by Christopher Pike

Three books in one!  What more could a gal ask for?  I guess you'll soon find out!

Before I start, I want to point out two things.  One, this is 3 reviews in one, so it's gonna be lengthy, and two, this is a Young Adult Novel.  I like to know what my kids are reading, or what their friends are reading, I want to know what they are talking about.  Many times I will jump on a book that looks interesting, so I can recommend it to them or maybe hide it away to see if they will find it on their own ::: wink wink :::  plus, they are easy reads - I plowed through the 800+ pages in two days.

Remember Me  Shari Cooper is your stereo-typical 18 year old California girl.  Blonde hair, blue eyes, rich parents, big house by the beach, perfect family.  She has a drop dead gorgeous boyfriend, is popular, drives a red sports car, oh!  and did I mention she is dead?

Yep!  Two weeks from graduating high school, Shari is found dead under a balcony, 4 stories up, where she had been attending a birthday party.  The death is ruled a suicide, even though she showed no signs of being suicidal.  Looking on on the other side, she has no idea how she was killed, she only knows she never would have jumped.  Before she can "go into the light", she wants to know what happened.  Shari spies on her "friends" to see how they handle her death and she follows Detective Garrett as he pieces together the clues that unravel the mystery.

The Return  Shari Cooper's murder has been solved; she can finally rest on the other side.  Only she can't.  There was so much of her life left to live, and she is so much more aware now.

Shari is given an opportunity reserved only for rare souls.  She has the chance to be reborn, but not as an infant.  She will take the place of an 18 year old girl who has given up on life.  Shari will become a Wanderer and will turn this otherwise destined-for-nothing life into something others will look up to.

The Last Story  Shari Cooper/Jean Rodrigues, has overcome amazing challenges.  She has returned from the dead and has narrowly escaped another death.  She is now a famous author, traveling the world while changing it with her stories.  Her latest book is about her former life, or really, her death.  She writes as her previous identity, Shari Cooper, from beyond the grave.  She publicly details her involvement in the solving of her murder, even though it may hurt the people she wants most to help.

But has she lost sight of her purpose?  The reason for her re-birth?  Shari/Jean struggles to overcome the obstacles that fame and money throw in her face as she works to unravel a new story forming in her mind.  Will she understand the deep memories of the past before it's too late?

I read the publishers synopsis of the book and thought it sounded similar to The Lovely Bones, which is a book I love and have read a number of times.  I have always enjoyed books about the supernatural.  I didn't realize that it was actually a 3-book series.

I finished the first book (300 pages) in an afternoon and honestly I was impressed with it.  It didn't drag on with annoying details and it ended well.  I could have walked away from the story feeling satisfied that it was over - no loose ends, no what-ifs, no feeling of "it should have explained more ...".

and if you have read my last few reviews, you'd know this has been an issue with me

The second book was a total mess.  While I respect where the author was trying to go with it, I really felt it was thrown together to fulfill a contract deadline.  It was short, jumbled and confusing.  Characters were introduced, but never elaborated on, which alone was no big deal until they were reintroduced in the 3rd book, and well ... I had no idea who they were! Being a closet sci-fi junkie, I had no issues with Shari taking over Jean's body, or even the religious background to the story, I just felt it could have been done SO much better.

By the 3rd book I was honestly just looking forward to putting the series to rest.  It was better than the second, but it still felt rushed and incomplete.  The story line jumped around, characters that were meaningless in book 2 were reintroduced and remained, still, pretty meaningless.  The passion behind the story was gone and I felt kind of sorry for the author.

I really enjoyed Remember Me, I may even read it again sometime, but the sequels I could live without.

I have a 1.5 pound book to pass along if anyone is interested ;0)

Monday, December 6, 2010

What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day

What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day by Pearle Cleage

Ava Johnson is a successful hairdresser in Atlanta.  She has her own shop, she surrounds herself with the finest clothes and the finest people, and she enjoys living her life to the fullest.  She has all she hoped for when she left Idlewild, Michigan 10 years ago

... and then some

It all begins to come to a screeching halt when a woman barges into her shop demanding that Ava "take it back!".  What she wants her to take back, is the letter that Ava had written to this woman's husband.  The letter that she'd sent out to every sexual partner she'd had in Atlanta.  The one explaining she was HIV positive.

Ava sells her shop and plans to head west to San Francisco, but first she wants to stop in Idlewild to visit her sister, Joyce.  What Ava thinks is a lazy summer visit, turns into a new challenge when she finds that the troubles of the big cities have invaded the lazy town she'd grown up in.  Her sister needs her help and Ava can't convince her to pick up and move with her, so she stays to help out and it turns out not to be a bad choice afterall.

This is one of those books I downloaded on a whim.  It has been sitting on my kindle for months, but aside from the interesting title, I knew nothing about the book.  I finally sat down to read it and finished it in just a couple of days.

The book was an easy read and fairly entertaining, despite the number of tragedies that seems to continuously attack these poor women.  There is quite a bit of information on HIV and AIDS and some colorful observations of African American life. The dialogue is straight forward and you definitely feel the change from one character to another ... the brutal teenage drug addicts and the quieter, prayerful sister.

The only complaint I had about the book was I felt it ended rather hastily (I think this is becoming a pattern for me?).  Now that I have opened up my reading genre, I am finding that some authors have a talent of leaving a book at the right time ... closing doors in a timely manner and leaving the reader satisfied.  Other authors tend to build up the action til the last couple of chapters and then slam the door  I was left feeling like I'd just watched an epsiode of The Cosby Show ... laughs, problems, laughs, the big problem comes to a head ... then let's wrap it all up in a big bow for the last 5 minutes.  It left me feeling cheated as a child and all these years later I am finding the same sentiment.

I would still recommend it, though.  I would love to pass along my copy, but it's on my kindle ♥

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Look Again

Look Again by Lisa Scottoline
Ellen Gleeson is a successful newspaper reporter and a single mom.  The story opens with her juggling the daily routine of working mom ... coming home from a day of work, hands full with mail, briefcase and Chinese take out for dinner.  Only, something in the mail draws her attention.

Have you seen me?

We've all seen the card in the mail.  The one with the picture of the missing child and the story of their horrible disappearance reduced to a list of dates and a short description of what they looked like, or a computer generated version of what they may look like today.  Only the child on this card looks exactly like Ellen's adopted son.

The story leads us with Ellen's nagging feeling that the familiarity with the boy on the card is more than mere coincidence.  As a reporter she has learned to trust this instinct.  As a mother she fears it.  We watch her put the pieces together as she risks her job, her heart and her life fighting her need for the truth and her desire to keep her little boy.

This book was lent to me by a friend who raved about it.  The book sounded good, but as a mother of an adopted child I have to admit I was hesitant reading anything that challenges our relationship, both legally and emotionally.  I read half the book in my first sitting, and then I reached a part - a legal loophole, if you will - that had me set the book aside.

The book dredged up some feelings I thought had been laid to rest.  It made me question the extent that one would go to, to do right by their child.  Do you stay blissfully ignorant and go about your life knowing that there are people whose lives have been shattered and that you  may hold the key to putting the pieces back together?  Or do you risk shattering your own life by looking for the truth?

I finished the rest of the book two days later.  I honestly could have walked away from it and never looked back, but the perfectionist in me says I have to finish what I started.  I figured I knew how it would end, I just wasn't sure I was ready to go there.

Any book that can reach in and yank out my heart, in my opinion, has some good to it.  It was well written and easy to follow.  It held a little bit for every reader - romance, suspense, action, mystery.  I thought the torn-emotions between wanting to know the truth vs wanting to pretend nothing would change came across pretty clearly. But the book ended rather abruptly, in my opinion,  it seemed like the author just kind of pooped out after getting to a point and threw in an Epilogue to tie it all together.  I wasn't real pleased with that.

I recommend as an easy read, despite it's almost 380 pages.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Moloka'i (a novel)

Moloka'i by Alan Brennert

This is the story of Rachel, a young Hawaiian girl, beloved by her family and living an idyllic childhood in late eighteenth century Honolulu, who contracts leprosy at the age of seven and is ripped away from her family and the only life she's ever known and sent to live in exhile in the leper colony on the tiny island of Moloka'i. Although fictitious, this novel is populated by a number of people who actually did live, and on historical events that actually took place.

Heartwrenching as it is reading about a little girl torn from her family and sent away to live out her life diseased and orphaned, the book actually ends up being uplifting without feeling contrived or saccharine. Rachel manages to carve out a life for herself in the leper colony, becoming part of a new family of other people, young and old, living with the same disease as she, the same feelings of loss, and the same determination to live. Full of lush descriptions of the Hawaiian landscape and culture, it was easy to visualize the story as it unfolded.

I never knew a whole lot about leprosy (now called Hansen's Disease) until reading this book, which inspired me to do a little further research. What has historically been viewed as the scourge of the sinful and unclean (and is still viewed as such today in many cultures), it is actually just a bacterial infection that, tragically, causes horrific disfiguration if left untreated. Fortunately, there are very effective treatments today that arrest the disease. Knowing this, however, makes it all the more tragic how many thousands and thousands of people were stripped of everyone and everything they had and forced to live out their lives as virtual criminals in exhile.

I really enjoyed this one and highly recommend it (I read it on my iPad so don't have a copy to give away).

Monday, November 15, 2010

My Mother's Rules

My Mother's Rules: a Practical Guide to Becoming an Emotional Genius by Lynn Toler

You might recognize the author as Judge Lynn Toler of the nationally syndicated show, Divorce Court.  In a mix of inspirational memoir meets self help, Toler shares with us her mother's "rules" for life.  Rules that were founded upon a need to do more than just survive.  A childhood of poverty, a mentally ill, alocholic husband, and two little girls ... this is where her mother began and her rules helped Toler become the successful woman that she is today.

Growing up in Ohio, the author takes us through her childhood, living with a father whose moods could be volatile, and a mother who managed to keep every one together.  We see how her mother's ability to keep her own feelings in check made it possible to somewhat gauge her husband's reaction to life's daily battles.

Toler describes, rather frankly, not only the outbursts she witnessed from her father as a child, but also how "the Beast" in her can also take over all rational thinking and replace it with fear.  We learn that the tools her mother used in living with a mentally ill husband, also work for Lynn when she is battling the demons that reside in her own mind.

These rules cover everything from knowing where your feelings come from, tackling them head on, and turning them around to make them work for you instead of against you ... working through an issue or avoiding one completely ... ignoring insult, helping others see what you're saying, and when to ask for help.

Most people are not, I have realized, emotionally well practiced.  We tend to misunderstand our fears and misinterpret our desires.  We act when we ought to sit still; we feel when we should instead think, and in the end, this allows our emotions to handle us as opposed to us handling them.

I came across this title on Amazon's recommended books and after reading a sample of it on my kindle, had no issue in paying for the rest.  I personally have my own set of "rules" in dealing with my emotions as a way to keep a handle on my bipolar.  By using what I've learned here, I feel confident that I can gain more control over the situations that I usually let slide by.  Things like displaced anger, blowing up over a small issue because I am still upset about something that happened earlier in the day, can be put aside until the time is right to deal with it.  This not only saves me the energy used in losing my cool, it also saves the embarrassment and guilt I'd feel later.

I'd recommend this book in a heartbeat.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Freedom (a novel)

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Once in a while a novel comes along that is everything a novel should be: engrossing story line, believable characters whom you care about, and a completely engaging writing style. This is one of those novels, at least in my estimation. I actually wasn't going to read it, but I kept hearing buzz about it and finally gave in and downloaded it to my iPad, and I'm so glad I did.

Meet Patty, Walter, and Richard. The first chapter of the book takes the reader quickly through the implosion of Patty's and Walter's life together. The rest of the book takes the reader back to the beginning and then on the long path of life these people travel, showing how it all unwinds.

Patty is a talented athlete who carries childhood scars. Her college basketball career is abruptly ended by a devastating injury, and shortly after, she throws herself into marriage to Walter and raising her kids, trying to be The Best Mom Ever, at least to some degree as a reproach to her own emotionally unavailable family.

Walter is a somewhat geeky and tenderhearted man who has escaped his own childhood demons. He is a passionate environmentalist and a genuine good person, and falls hard for Patty.

Richard is Walter's best friend and polar opposite in almost every way. A selfish, drug-dabbling musician, he uses women, and is cynical. He falls for Patty in his own way.

What develops is something of a love triangle: Richard loves and admires Walter like a brother; but, alas, his best friend's girlfriend-then-wife gets under his skin and becomes an itch he can't quite scratch. Patty, too, loves and admires Walter, but, despite constant effort to be "her best person," she can never seem to get past feeling both not good enough for Walter, and as though she settled for Walter in some way because she also has an attraction to bad boy Richard.

Woven throughout the story is the theme of freedom: personal freedoms and the ways in which we abuse them and the prices we pay for them, set against a backdrop of national freedom and the devastation that has wreaked in many ways. It was hard to read all the environmental stuff and not look at my own carbon footprint with a critical eye.

The story is utterly believable and the characters so vivid and real, all of them extremely flawed, but each with a story to tell. I couldn't help but laugh and cry at their foibles, and in the end, the reader is left with a feeling of hopefulness.

On some level, it evoked for me a similar flavor as She's Come Undone by Wally Lamb, one of my all time favorite novels. This is one of those books I picked up every spare moment I had, and was sorry when it came to an end.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Blue Boy

Blue Boy by Rakesh Satyal

Kiran Sharma is a smart, talented twelve year old boy.  He is admired by most of his teachers, adored by the Indian Aunties, gets straight A's in school, goes to temple and is very observant of the people around him.  Kiran also likes to wear his mother's make-up, play with dolls and he thinks he is Krishna, reincarnated.

This book takes us through a few months of Kiran's life.  The author shows us how this little Indian boy actually splits his time in two worlds - that of his school, where he is the only Indian child and longs to play with the popular girls, talking about saved by the Bell and Beverly Hills, 90210.  and that of his Temple, where he is surrounded by other Indian families, engrossed by all that he loves about his culture, but is still not accepted by the children.

I downloaded this book on my Kindle while it was offered as a freebie in honor of the students that took their lives as a result of bullying.  I'm not really sure what I expected out of it.  As usual I didn't read about the book before diving into it's pages.  While I was impressed with the colorful pictures painted in my mind about Indian homes, food and Temple, I was left feeling a little lost.  Like I was just observing the scenes without a clear direction in order.

It turns out the book was leading to a talent show where Kiran wanted to honor Krishna in song and dance.  Along the way though, we were sidetracked with naked teenagers having sex in the park, a friend who spurred on prepubescent sexual curiosity with playboy magazines hidden under his bedroom desk, and a nagging question of, is Kiran attracted to boys?  or does he just want to be a girl?

I read so many rave reviews about this book that I am left wondering if maybe I was just preoccupied while reading the book.  I absolutely loved the description of Indian customs, clothing, food and decor.  The narrative of his parents speech reminded me of my own Indian friends and I loved imagining them saying the words the author wrote (I'm weird like that).  But as for the rest of the book??  I was kinda left ... stumped?  In the story Kiran does something totally out of character, and while I kept thinking he would own up to it, he never does and hardly shows any remorse for the act.

Decide for yourself.  This one may need a second read from me.

 - I know what you're thinking .... what in the world possesses me to read these books??

Thursday, October 21, 2010


After by Amy Efaw

Fifteen year old Devon is a talented soccer player with "unlimited" potential. She is an honor student, has a 4.15 GPA and is well liked by the adults around her as well as her peers.

Devon has a very strict sense of the person she is and wants to become.  She pushes herself to excel at everything she does, and with an absent mom, she is the only one she is accountable to.

Devon has also been arrested for the attempted murder of her newborn baby.

This story starts out with the police canvasing the Tacoma area after a man walking his dog, finds a newborn baby in a dumpster.  When the police arrive at Devon's apartment, they find her nearly unconscious and covered in blood.  We move with her through the trip to the hospital, her arrest, her court proceedings, her time in juvenile detention and through her confusion in all of the chaos.  Through flashbacks we learn how Devon had allowed herself to fall for a boy slightly older than her, have one sexual encounter, and then deliver a baby all alone in her bathroom after denying the pregnancy for 9 months.

This book is labeled Children's Literature: 8th grade and up, and was recommended to me by my 18 year old daughter.  Quite honestly, I don't know that I would have gotten out of it at 13 or 14, what I did at 30-something.  The book is very well written and I didn't feel as if I were reading a Children's book at all. It was an easy read, though I found myself skipping some overly descriptive paragraphs to get to dialogue here and there (I swear I'm as impatient in reading as I am in real life).

While I admit the topic seems horrifying, the author focused more on the psychological aspects surrounding the event, than on the act of leaving a baby to die.  I worked for Social Services and with children who've been abused and neglected for a number of years, so I had a little coldness in my heart for Devon when I started reading the book.  I know there are two sides to every story, but when it comes to babies I tend to only take one side.  Imagine my surprise as I start to feel empathy for this girl despite the depravity of her crime.

I think the author says it best in her note at the end of the book ...

The "dumpster baby" phenomenon is an invisible American tragedy, poorly understood and rarely acknowledged.
Though most people would consider the behavior inexplicable and unusual, its occurrence is disturbingly common ...

...Texas was the first state to enact what would later be termed "safe haven" legislation.  that was in 1999, and since then, all forty-nine other states have passed similar legislation. Yet news outlets all over the United States are still reporting these "Dumpster baby" stories with alarming regularity.  So why is this still happening?  After attempts to answer that question.
In my own home, I would have no issues with my children reading After. I strongly recommend that a parent read it if their child shows an interest in this book.  The topic brings up issues that should definitely be a conversation piece between parent and child.

my book is up for grabs, if anyone is interested ... and yes, I am aware of my tendency for the morose story ;)

For You Mom, Finally (memoir)

For You Mom, Finally by Ruth Reichl

In this slim volume, the author, a former New York Times food critic, editor of Gourmet magazine, and author of several books, delves into the life of her mother, now deceased, trying to figure out what made this woman tick. Her mother's life was always fraught, and she succeeded in driving her daughter away with her eccentricities and deep unhappiness and dissatisfaction with her own life. After her death, the author sets out to locate a box of her mother's letters and diaries that was supposed to exist, and find the box she does. Inside she is is finally able to get inside her mother's head and get to know a woman she never really knew or understood when she was living. It ends up being a journey of self-discovery for the author, as well as an opportunity to finally begin to heal from old wounds. She wrote this book as a gift to her mother, believing that her mother would have liked her story to be told so that she could be understood, and to thank her for the lessons and gifts she now understands that her mother gave her.

I bought this book on a whim on a recent trip to the bookstore because (a) I'm a sucker for a memoir, and (b) I tend to be drawn to stories having to do with mother-daughter relationships because my own relationship with my mother has always been so volatile and unhealthy. There is a part of me that hopes, I guess, to find the key by reading other people's stories of their own mother-daughter relationships - not the key to reconciling with my mother, but to understanding where it all went so terribly wrong, and to preventing it from happening with my own daughters.

This was also a fascinating read to me because it came on the heels of having read When Everything Changed, and this is an actual, personal (though somewhat second-hand) account of one woman's experience of having lived in an era when even the brightest, most motivated and ambitious women were encouraged to squelch any dreams they may have had outside of getting married, raising children, and maintaining households.

I really enjoyed this book and found it moving and thought-provoking. It's a quick read, and mine's up for grabs.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Empress Orchid (novel)

Empress Orchid by Anchee Min

The book opens with the title character at seventeen years old, left in poverty with her mother, sister and brother after the death of their father, a political figure in nineteenth century China. Orchid is given a chance to interview to become an Imperial Concubine, as the current Emperor is looking for mates to produce an heir to the throne. After being selected as an Imperial Concubine, she is given the rank of Fourth Wife and ends up producing the Emperor's only male heir (who will become "The Last Emporer"). The Emperor dies when his son is only five years old, amid much political and social unrest in China, and Orchid manages to eventually become the most powerful woman in China, although the book doesn't take the reader that far.

Based on actual history and people, this is a fictionalized, first-person, and sympathetic account of Empress Dowager Cixi's early life in the Forbidden City. Although rich in details pertaining to customs, beliefs, landscape and history, I found that the story tended to drag for long periods. The characters all seemed shallow, and it was difficult to relate or feel sympathetic to any of them. The author tends to use some verbage which I think is probably historically incorrect (did anyone really say "potty" back in the mid-1800s, or even "retarded"?), which I found irritating. Without spoiling anything, the story ends with a weird surprise regarding Empress Orchid's sister, which is never developed or explained, and, of course, the predictable love interest, which I don't know is historically accurate or just part of the fiction of the novel, but seemed unlikely to me. It does show a fascinating glimpse of the lives of concubines and eunuchs (eunuchs: an excellent example of the totally effed-up things we humans do to one another), and life during the Second Opium War.

I think this book might appeal more to someone especially interested in Chinese history. I read it because it's the current selection for my book club; I was glad to finally be done with it.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

book give-away

A short while back, my daughter won a Dr. Phil gift basket at a Dodger game.  It came with a stack of books written by Dr. Phil and his wife, Robin.

My daughter, the book lover that she is, proudly gathered them into her arms and whisked them off to her room.  More than once I've gone in to get her up for school and found her reading one of these new treasures.  I was impressed, a little shocked even.  But last night she brought them all into my room and asked if I could find a home for the books.  Turns out, they were just a tad over her head.

at least she tried Ü

I figured I would put them up for grabs here.
First replied, first served.
Leave me a comment with the title you'd like and your email address so I can get with you on the shipping address.  The offer is good til the end of the month and then I will figure out something else to do with them.  So, for anyone interested ... here is the list!

Self Matters: Creating Your Life from the Inside Out
(autographed, hard cover)

Real Life: Preparing for the 7 Most Challenging Days of Your Life
(autographed, hard cover)

Family First: Your Step-by-Step Guide for Creating a Phenomenal Family
(autographed, paperback)

Love Smart: find the One You Want - Fix the One You Got
(autographed, hard cover)

The Ultimate Weight Solution: the 7 Keys to Weight Loss Freedom
(autographed, paperback)

Christmas in my Home and Heart
(hard cover)

Inside My Heart: Choosing to Live with Passion and Purpose

From My Heart to Yours: Life Lessons on Faith, Family and Friendship
(hard cover)

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Not Without My Sister

Not Without My Sister: The True Story of Three Girls Violated and Betrayed by Kristina Jones, Celeste Jones and Juliana Buhring

Kristina, Celeste and Juliana openly share the painfully disturbing memories of their life in a religious cult, The Children of God (also known as The Family International).  Each woman, born to the same man, discusses her own experience as a second generation member - being torn from her parents and siblings, being left in the care of strangers, having the very basic of freedoms being ripped away as she is abused by those expected to protect her.

These women take us through the teachings and practices of the followers of David Berg and through their own lives of being moved from one country to another, always trying to stay one step ahead of the authorities, and always defensive of their beliefs.  They show us the power of blind faith and how the desire to believe can overwhelm conscience and instinct, forcing one to believe they are weak simply because they doubt.

I just finished my second reading of this book.  My first reading was haunted by the realization that this is not a work of fiction based on a made up city, in a made up land.  The reading of the reviews on Amazon.com only made me see more clearly that this isn't even an isolated occurrence of abuse that happened in a tiny little nothing sort of town in a country few have ever heard of.  Many of these homes were set in the center of some of the biggest cities around the world.  The second reading made me associate the births and lives of these women with my own, them being raised in the same decades I was raised, having children within years of my own, and the reality that as of 2005, there were still active homes and members practicing the twisted teachings and beliefs of self proclaimed prophets.

I recommend this book to anyone who works with children, more so to those who work with children who have been abused and neglected.  These women effectively describe how one can remain in a hostile, abusive situation, that they know is wrong, because of the lies and fears they have been fed about life outside the only world they know.  It also accurately describes the resilience, the unconditional love and the ease of forgiveness these children have for their parents, despite their involvement, or lack of responsibility taken, in their abuse.

While working with abused and neglected children, it always amazed me at how readily children want for their abusers and how easily they let go of the memories in hope of change.  I was sad at how easily they seemed to forget, knowing they would be let down again, but I also felt hope for them, that their abuser would see the forgiveness given by the child as a gift - a chance to make things right.

It is never easy to read about situations like this, but pretending they don't happen is foolish.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Meeting Mr. Wrong

Meeting Mr. Wrong; the Romantic Misadventures of a Southern Belle by Stephanie Snowe.

I "met" the author on her old blog (Jason. For the love of God - the link to her current blog is there) I adore her wit and her 'put it all out there' way of writing about her life.  I'd initially put off reading her book because I didn't want it to change the way I read her blog. I still wanted it to be fresh and alive for me and for some reason I worried it would begin to read more like a reality TV series ... you know?  not really reality??

I gave in this summer and ordered it (my bookstore didn't carry it and neither did my kindle ... hmpf!), I was not disappointed and still look forward to her current posts online.

The book starts out with Stephanie's new husband proclaiming "I don't love you.  I never did!  As soon as them babies come out, I'm divorcing you!"

Seriously, it's on page 1!

She takes us through the ups and downs of life after divorce, with twins and a sense of humor leading the way.  Through the issues of internet dating, grown men that live with their moms, workplace set ups, dealing with family perceptions of where you should be at in life, and did I mention, she has twins??

It's a roller coaster ride, but one that Stephanie shares with humor and dignity (even when she thinks she's lost it).  I enjoyed every bit of it, even the dates from hell, because I could gag, cringe, cry and laugh with her.  I recommend it to anyone looking for a fun, quick, chick lit read ... and my copy is up for grabs!

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Unit (novel)

The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist

This Swedish author's debut novel puts us in a dystopia set in the near future.  There are two classes of people in this time - the "dispensable", the middle aged who have yet to start a family or create ties that make them useful in society, and the "necessary", those who have started families and are contributing to the growth of society, or are of a profession that is considered valuable to the society (professors, doctors, etc).

The dispensable are brought in during their respective birth months, women upon turning 50, and men upon turning 60, to a Unit where they are housed while living out their remaining days.  These Units have wonderful accommodations, each person having their own apartments and access to dining, shopping, entertainment, parks, pools, gyms, and the such.  For these people, who have typically lived on little money and few friends, this tends to be a favorable option.  They are surrounded by people, much like them, and are put in an environment much better than the one they'd had in the "community".  In return for the monetarily free life they live, they are used as guinea pigs to experimental treatments meant to better the lives of the necessary people in the outside community and they are expected to donate organs to them until their "final donation" of the most vital organs.

This story begins upon author, Dorrit Weger's arrival at the Unit and follows her through the ups and downs of her stay.  She makes wonderful friends, continues her writing, and even falls in love.  She finds comfort in finally being able to be herself without being looked down upon for her life style and the choices she's made.

This book was a great read.  I did find small parts of it annoyingly repetitive, but it didn't turn me away from the underlying feeling that this may not be too far off from reality.  When we let society dictate our worth and in turn allow laws to be created that support the "values" of social and economic growth over a person's individuality, this is quite possibly the result.

Despite the outcome you feel lingering within the pages, the book is not all sadness and suppression (tho I did shed a tear or two towards the end).  Friendship and love bring out the humor among the dispensable, and even some compassion from the necessary.

It's not a book I would recommend to everybody, I would say you'll either really enjoy it, or you'll find it totally unappealing, there isn't much middle ground to stand on.  I ordered it on my kindle after the sample read piqued my curiosity and upon the recommendation of a friend. Sorry, you'll have to decide for yourself.

happy reading!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Tinkers (novel)

Tinkers by Paul Harding

In this debut novel, Paul Harding tells the story of the last few days of an elderly man dying as he's surrounded by his family. While the author does touch on the man's physical state as he dies, the story really takes place much more inside the man's head. As George Washington Crosby dies over a period of several days, his life "flashes" before him, though more slowly than what we've come to think of as one's life flashing before them. Various memories are recounted, mostly from George's childhood, growing up as the eldest son of an epileptic father (at a time when epilepsy was considered a form of insanity) and a bitter mother. George, in his twilight years, becomes a repairer of antique clocks; his father was a peddler and repairer of various household goods; hence the title "Tinkers"; both father and son tinkered. The author's real gift is in his prose; he deftly describes both items and scenes in a very visual way, although some of the descriptions were too wordy and complicated for me, as the inner workings of a clock, for instance.

It's not a long book - under 200 pages. Still, it took me a bit of work to get through. It's one of those books with reviews on the back cover touting it as "remarkable," etc., that leave me feeling like there might be something wrong with me that I didn't love it as much as I was supposed to. (And it did win a Pulitzer Prize.) It's a good book, but I didn't think it was great.

Mine's up for grabs; if you want it, say the word.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

When Everything Changed (non-fiction)

When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women From 1960 to the Present by Gail Collins

Think you know all about "Women's Lib" and the sexual revolution? For most of us born anytime after the early 1960s, these are abstract concepts that seem outdated. Something that happened a long time ago that doesn't have a whole lot to do with everyday life for us now. Although there is still occasional talk of "sexism" and "chauvinism," women of my generation and younger take for granted that they have the same rights and opportunities that their male counterparts do.

But it wasn't always like this. In fact, a mere half-century ago, a woman was kicked out of court, where she had gone to pay a traffic ticket, because she was wearing slacks. And so the book opens, giving us the full story of how women in America went from being "chattel," with very few rights or opportunities outside of marrying very young and producing offspring, to setting their sights as far as the White House and as high as the moon.

It took a little work to get into the book, as it is full of history and facts and reads a bit like a textbook. But the author does a wonderful job of holding the reader's interest with her entertaining style and with lots of relatable anecdotes. I'm glad I stuck it out and read the whole thing - it took me a few weeks, but it was well worth it.

This one is my book club's current pick; the discussion in a couple weeks should be very interesting, especially given that several of our members will be bringing their mothers along to give their perspectives on how life has been for them living on both ends of the women's movement.

I'm keeping my copy - maybe my daughters will read it one day. I definitely recommend it, though!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Shack

Throwing another "God" book into the mix here, the much talked about The Shack by Wm. Paul Young.

It's about a man, Mack, whose young daughter was abducted and murdered by a serial killer. Several years later he finds a note supposedly from God, asking to meet him at the shack where evidence of his daughter's murder was recovered.

When he arrives at the shack, Mack has an experience with God. Whether it was an actual experience or a dream or whatever is up to the reader. Mack meets God, who appears as the Holy Trinity in three rather unexpected forms. During his time with God, Mack expresses his anger at God for the loss of his daughter as God tries to explain to him why bad things happen and how to forgive.

In spite of the presence of The Father, The Son and the Holy Spirit, I didn't find the book to be overly Christian, just intensely spiritual. It certainly packs an emotional punch and I found myself in tears of sadness and joy several times.

Mack certainly has reason to be angry at God, and I'm not quite sure I buy into God's explanation for it all, or even if it's God's explanation or rather the author's explanation. That's a question for theologians.

It's not a very long book and worth the read. Perhaps some will find comfort in it.

This one's on my Kindle.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Eat, Pray, Love

I happened to see Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love on the sale shelf at Borders and had to see what all the hype was about. I've had friends tell me the book changed their lives.

After a bitter divorce, the author sets out to Italy, India, and Indonesia. In Italy, she indulges in the food, in India she learns meditation, and in Indonesia she learns to fall in love again.

I'm glad that Elizabeth Gilbert is such an engaging writer, because my first thought on reading this book was "Of COURSE you can go off and find yourself when you're getting paid to do it and have no husband/kids/job responsibilities!" But after I got over my original eye-rolling over the premise, I really enjoyed reading about her journey to self-awareness.

For me, it wasn't life changing or even inspirational, but more of a pleasant travelogue.

This one's up for grabs.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Losing My Religion (memoir)

Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America - and Found Unexpected Peace by William Lobdell

I came across this title purely by chance; I saw it on a friend's to-read list on goodreads.com. The title immediately struck a chord with me, as I've spent the last few years being somewhat preoccupied with having lost my religion (and faith) and trying to fit in in a community whose vast majority is made up of devout Christians. I wanted to read about someone else's experience going down the path of believer to non-believer.

The book didn't disappoint. In it, William Lobdell (who has a great blog) recounts how he became "born-again." Delving headlong into his new found faith, he prayed and prayed for a job covering the "religion beat" with the Los Angeles Times. After a number of years, his prayers are answered. But covering religious stories showed the author the ugly underbelly of organized religion - particularly in the Catholic church, but in all major religions as well - including horrific sexual abuse against children by the clergy and the church's not only covering up the crimes but vilifying the victims, mass abuse of donor funds, and fraudulent faith healers, among other things. Most of all, what Mr. Lobdell witnessed over time was the fact that the vast majority of people who profess to walk in the light of the Lord talk the talk but don't walk the walk. They don't regularly practice acts of Christian charity, tolerance and compassion, statistically they do not live morally superior lives to those of their unbelieving counterparts, they commit the same crimes of law, ethics, and morality, and they have the same struggles as everyone else. In other words, believing in God and professing to live according to the laws of the bible does not generally improve the quality of anyone's life; generally speaking, God is not making a difference in people's lives - not even devout Christians' lives - because God doesn't exist.

These observations finally led the author to the conclusion that there is no God, that God is only a myth and a fantasy created by people. At first the revelation is frightening and painful to him, but eventually he discovers a new found peace, knowing that this short life here on earth is our one and only shot, and we should make the most - and the best - of it.

Although my journey from belief to non-belief was far less dramatic than the author's, so much of what he lays out in this book resonates with me. This is a very compelling read, for believers and non-believers alike.

I read this on my iPad, so can't pass it along, but go buy yourself a copy!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Olive Kitteridge

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

A series of intertwined short stories, this book is a portrayal of a small east coast town and some of its inhabitants, all struggling the same universal struggles all people have. The book's main character is a cantankerous junior high school math teacher, Olive Kitteridge, whose story winds its way through the book, with some of the stories focusing on her and some only featuring her presence in passing. She's a hard nut to crack; it's hard to like her, and I found myself not liking in her things I see in myself that I don't like, so in that way it became somewhat self-reflective for me. By the end of the book, the reader hopefully comes to have compassion for Olive, even if they never do end up liking her. In a lot of ways, she's the best and the worst in all of us, and what I liked about her character was that she was very real - not beautiful or brilliant or especially charitable, but rather just an average, flawed human being.

The prose is rich and beautiful; I was reminded of Kent Haruf, all of whose books I read and loved.

I read this for my book club and am offering it up for grabs to my book club friends first.

The Case For Christ

The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel

I was asked to read this book by an acquaintance who is a devout Christian. My hunch is that she hoped that this book might convince me that not only was Jesus Christ in fact a real person who lived and breathed, but that he is/was the son of God, that he did, in fact, die nailed to a cross in order to save mankind from sin, that he was in fact resurrected, etc., etc., and of course, if all this is true, then it must be true that God exists. All of this is stuff of which I am not a believer; hence the attempt to convince me.

Written by a self-proclaimed life-long skeptic who finds God and converts to Christianity, the author uses his background as an investigative journalist to "investigate" the authenticity of Jesus Christ (and therefore, God). While he certainly has a flair for dramatic writing, he fails miserably to actually make anything resembling a solid case for the existence of Jesus, as the Messiah or anything else. While he purports to set forth "evidence," sprinkled liberally throughout the book are statements like "We must assume . . . " and "It is unlikely that . . ." and "It can be presumed that . . ." In other words, a lot of supposition, which is not evidence. His supposed "eyewitness accounts" of Jesus consist of the assumption that the gospels were written by Matthew, Mark and Luke; the fact is that (a) there is also no evidence that any of those men are anything more than mythical figures, and (b) there is no evidence that they wrote the gospels. Mr. Strobel sets forth his "case" by interviewing a number of "experts," all of whom, conveniently, are devout believers. He doesn't interview a single skeptic or secular scholar.

The fact is, there still is not a shred of forensic, scientific or archaeological evidence of the existence of Jesus Christ - and certainly not of any of the events the bible claims happened in this Jesus figure's lifetime.

This book is propaganda at its best. I simply cannot imagine that it could succeed in tipping the balance for a skeptic or convincing a non-believer; only someone who is already a firm believer will be able to swallow what the author sets forth.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

How to Have a Book Club

Not that there's only one way to have a book club! But here's how my book club does it up.

We - a handful of friends and I - formed our little book club seven years ago (it's hard to believe it's been that long!). Originally, we formed it as an extension of the MOMS Club we were members of, but it wasn't long before we realized that having to adhere to the rules of that organization was holding us back from making our book club what we wanted it to be. Initially we met during the day to discuss the books we read, with our tykes scampering about at our feet. Sounds cute and sweet, doesn't it? It wasn't. I strongly advise anyone wanting to start a book club to hold the discussions sans kids. This is your opportunity to be an adult, among other adults, and to partake of adult conversation, and hopefully adult beverages.

We started out as a group of about a half-dozen stay-home moms, and we've grown to a group of women who include stay-home moms, teachers, a lawyer, a college professor, an actuary, and a number of other careers and identities. The group is ever-changing; there are a handful of us who have been members since the group's inception, and over the years lots of other women have joined and un-joined. There are officially roughly twenty members right now, and a little more than half of that number comprises the core group of members who are diligently active.

I am the unofficial coordinator of the group, which really means nothing more than maintaining a roster and sending out announcements and reminders via email of upcoming reading selections and dates and times of discussions. A couple years ago we started using qlubb.com, which is a really cool way of communicating with any sort of cohesive group you may be involved in.

So here's what we do: we take turns choosing books for the group to read. We read and discuss one book per month, skipping December and instead having a holiday dinner/gift-book exchange that month. Whomever chooses the book hosts the discussion for that book. There is no set order - we don't draw names or assign months, nor do we vote on books. Fortunately, we are an active enough group that members reserve a spot to host way ahead of time, so we usually have books and hosts signed up months in advance.

The discussions are hosted in the evening at the host's home. There is generally lots of food, talk and laughter. We try to use a published discussion guide (which can often be found in the back of the book, on the publisher's website, or on the author's website) to facilitate the discussion of each book, but once in a while we read a book that has no published discussion guide, as in the case of the recently read and discussed The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. My friend Robin writes really excellent discussion questions though.

Sometimes the host might try to keep the theme or setting of the book in mind when preparing the evenings snacks. For instance, the very first book we read as a group was Memoirs of a Geisha, and at the discussion my friend Judy provided these little Japanese ice cream things, which I remember were really yummy. I hosted our discussion of Henrietta Lacks earlier this week, and here is my amusingly weak attempt at creating snacks and desserts that resemble cells, in keeping with the book's theme (go ahead and laugh!):

As I said, we usually use a discussion guide to . . . uh, guide the discussion. But the discussions inevitably digress and meander down different paths and we often talk about our own life experiences and views about different topics. This is what I love so much about my book club - it's very casual and intimate and has provided a means of getting to know and connect with other women. I have made some very dear friends through my book club.

We read all kinds of genres: classics, contemporary fiction, memoirs, nonfiction, mysteries - you name it. In fact, here's a list of all the books we've read thus far, starting seven years ago!

Memoirs of a Geisha*

Good in Bed**

The Christmas Box*

The Five People You Meet in Heaven*

The DaVinci Code

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West**

Cry, the Beloved Country*

The Secret Life of Bees*

The Red Tent*

The Awakening*

A Prayer for Owen Meany*

I Don’t Know How She Does It*

The Kite Runner*

The Stone Diaries**

Life of Pi*

Dress Your Family in Corduroy & Denim*


Angry Housewives Eating Bonbons**

The Egg and I*

Summer Breeze


Brideshead Revisited

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan*

East of Eden*

On Hitler’s Mountain**

A Walk in the Woods

The Time Traveler's Wife*


Pride and Prejudice

The Journeys of Socrates

One Hundred Years of Solitude

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn*

Running With Scissors*

To Kill a Mockingbird*

She’s Come Undone**

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter*

The Namesake*

Midnight’s Children

The Thirteenth Tale*


Gone With the Wind*

A Thousand Splendid Suns*

Three Cups of Tea

The Glass Castle*

Eat, Pray, Love

The Birth House**

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

The Shadow of the Wind

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings*

A Long Way Gone*

Road Map to Holland**

…And Ladies of the Club

The Gargoyle*

My Name is Asher Lev

Murder on the Orient Express

Saving Fish From Drowning*

The Help*




One Child*


Little Dorrit

The 19th Wife*

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet*

Franny and Zooey

Mommie Dearest*

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo*

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks**

Whooo-eeeee, that's a lotta books! Up next are Olive Kitteridge, followed by When Everything Changed.

In our group, there really isn't any pressure to read every single book chosen. My own personal feeling is: there are too many good books out there to waste your time struggling through a book you really don't enjoy. I usually give a book 50 pages to grab me; if it doesn't, I'm done with it.

Also, the point of a book club, in my opinion anyway, shouldn't be to choose books that everyone will love, but rather to choose books that will be the basis for good discussions. Even a book someone passionately hates can spur a provocative discussion.

Anyway, if you've ever thought about starting a book club, it's not too hard. Just gather together some friends who love to read and who are willing to take turns hosting, and get reading!

* books I actually read
** books I chose and hosted

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Discussion Questions for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Back in March, I read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. I was so impacted by the story that I decided to choose it as a reading selection for my book club. However, as much as I searched, I was unable to find a published discussion guide for the book to facilitate a discussion. So my friends Robin, Angela, and I collaborated and came up with a list of the following discussion questions, which I hope might help anyone else out there looking on the internet for a discussion guide for this book:

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks - Discussion Questions

1. The passage in which the initial fated cells were removed from Henrietta Lacks’s body reads as follows (see page 33):

“With Henrietta unconscious on the operating table in the center of the room, her feet in stirrups, the surgeon on duty, Dr. Lawrence Wharton, Jr., sat on a stool between her legs. He peered inside Henrietta, dilated her cervix, and prepared to treat her tumor. But first – though no one had told Henrietta that TeLinde was collecting samples or asked if she wanted to be a donor – Wharton picked up a sharp knife and shaved two dime-sized pieces of tissue from Henrietta’s cervix: one from her tumor, and one from the healthy cervical tissue nearby. Then he placed the samples in a glass dish.”

Bearing in mind that those two tissue samples removed from Henrietta were not removed in an attempt to treat her cancer, but rather purely for purposes of research, was it wrong for the doctor to remove the sample tissue in the first place? Was it wrong for Dr. Gey to collect those samples for the purpose of trying to grow them in controlled conditions? Does the end – i.e., the immeasurable benefit to humankind resulting from those tissue samples – justify the means – i.e., removing tissue from a person without their consent or knowledge?

2. Discuss the process of taking these cancerous cells and growing them in the “auger” or medium that allowed them to continue to multiply. Was it her human cell line?

(Note: As genetic knowledge has increased HeLa is: not really a human cell line at all because it involves a genetic fusion of a papilloma virus and Henrietta’s cervical cells. The hybrid has its own genome and attempts have been made to have the cell line recognized as a species in its own right. Of course this cell line also contaminated other cell lines in labs around the world. In a Feb. 2010 paper, HeLa was found as a contaminant of 106 out of 306 cell lines tested.

3. Did you get the impression that Henrietta was treated any differently than a rich, white woman would have been (assuming the hospital was also collecting cell samples)?

4. How do you feel about knowing that you still do not have total control over your body once you go to see a doctor? If you discovered that tissue routinely removed from your body at some point in the past went on to significantly benefit science and research, would you feel that you should somehow be compensated? What do you think is more important – a person’s personal rights over their own tissue, or contributing to science and research for the benefit of all humankind?

5. Was it a good thing for the members of the Lacks family that the author wrote this book? Was this attempt different from previous attempts to write about the Lacks family and Henrietta in particular?

6. How much impact on the Lacks family members’ long term lives did Henrietta’s early demise have? Do you think that her children’s lives would have turned out significantly different had Henrietta not died so young?

7. Was it hubris, lack of “patient experience,” or frankly, sheer stupidity on the part of the researchers who contacted the family later for blood/DNA samples, to think the family understood what they were doing and why were they doing it?

8. Why has the discovery of the existence of HeLa cells been so difficult for the Lacks family? Discuss the family’s ignorance and their lack of medical knowledge. Why did it take until 2001, 50 years after Henrietta’s death, for a researcher at John Hopkins to show Deborah the cells and tell her these weren’t Henrietta’s regular cells, just trillions of cancerously transformed cells, and that there was never going to be a clone of her mother?

9. Do you think the family is owed money for the sale of the HeLa cells? Do you agree with their feeling that they should be compensated?

10. Do you think that the attitude among some of the Lacks family members that they should be monetarily compensated for Henrietta’s contribution to science is born out of their poverty and/or oppression based on their race? Do you think if the family were financially comfortable, white, and not the subjects of regular discrimination that their feelings of being owed compensation might be different?

11. When the doctor of the patient, Mr. Moore, lied to him about the financial value of his cells, do you think the doctor behaved unethically, and the court should have ruled against him?

12. What did the author hope to accomplish by writing this book? Did she accomplish what she set out to do? To what do you attribute the family’s change of heart regarding the HeLa cells?

13. Was the presence of the author in the book disruptive or appropriate?

14. How realistic was the characterization, especially of Deborah and Zakariyya? Would you want to meet any of them? Did you like them?

15. What life lessons can be learned from this account?

16. Do you think the bad things that happened to the family were based on their race, particularly in regards to Elsie (Henrietta’s daughter who was institutionalized) and Henrietta’s hospital care? Was it forgivable based on the time period or should amends be made?

17. How does the setting figure into the book? Is the setting a character? Does it come to life? Did you feel you were experiencing the time and place in which the book was set? How did you feel at the end when Clover was gone? Do you think this was an allegory for Henrietta’s family’s travails?

18. How realistic is it for Courtney Speed, the grocery store owner in Turner Station, to start a museum?

19. Discuss the medical breakthroughs from HeLa cells. Have your attitudes or ideas towards medical research changed in any way due to reading this book?

20. Ownership of genetic material is still a vexed issue. Many human genes have been patented and a battle is currently being fought through the U.S. courts between doctors and a biotech company owning the patents for genes used in breast-cancer research screening. What are your thoughts about research and patents in this now “profit making” industry?