Tuesday, October 11, 2011

I'm Moving - Please Follow Me!

I'm calling it quits. Sort of.

When I started this blog a couple years ago, I envisioned a group of friends sitting over virtual cups of coffee and tattered paperbacks, chatting about books and swapping them with each other. It never really panned out to become that, although lots of great reviews were posted by various contributors, most who quickly came and went.

Now it's time for me to take this in a slightly different direction. I still love reading and adore talking about the books I read, so that's not going to change. However, I've started a new blog that is mine and mine alone, in part because I've been fortunate enough to have been contacted by a number of authors and publishers lately asking me to review their books, and it's made me want to start fresh elsewhere, where it's just me doing the talking.

Many thanks to the gals who contributed here over the last couple of years; I've appreciated your reviews and recommendations.

I hope you'll follow me to my new digs! Check it out and subscribe: Turn the Page

Thank you!!

Friday, September 30, 2011

The Diaries of Adam and Eve

As an avid reader and a book blogger, I should have been more on top of the fact that this week has been designated as Banned Books Week, an annual event sponsored by the American Library Association celebrating the freedom to read and the importance of the First Amendment. My personal thoughts on banned books are simple: I believe that, while not all reading material is appropriate for everyone, it should be up to individuals to decide what is appropriate for them (and their children) to read. Censorship - which amounts to a deprivation of information based on a particular person's or group's own moral agenda - is wrong, pure and simple. Let the people have access to all information, all opinions, all accounts, and let them decide for themselves what is worthy, what is true, and what has value.

I only recently became aware of Eve's Diary, a soliloquy written by Mark Twain very early in the twentieth century. Apparently, Eve's Diary was banned from a Massachusetts library for over 100 years because of the illustrations, which depict Eve au naturale. The illustrations are extremely tame and mild by today's standards (hamburger joint ads are far more racy), but throughout the 1900s they were considered pornographic.

Eve's Diary, originally published as its own volume, is the second part of the combined volumes of The Diaries of Adam and Eve. This is Mark Twain's "translation from the originals" of the first two human beings' diaries, and they are a hoot! Witty and utterly charming, Adam is a rather grumpy man who finds himself both irritated and perplexed by "the new Creature" (Eve) who talks incessantly, has grand ideas about everything, and is prone to "shedding water from the holes she looks out of." Eventually Eve "catches" a baby, but Adam, having never seen a baby before, can make neither heads nor tales of it, first convinced it is some type of fish, then a kangaroo, then a bear. Eve's diary reveals her to be an emotional, passionate lover of beauty and animals, and a somewhat frivolous and childish girl-woman who can't understand why Adam keeps trying to get away from her.

I loved this book. Really enjoyable, and a very quick, easy read.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter (novel)

The opening scene introduces the reader to Larry Ott, an odd, middle-aged loner who lives by himself in the house he grew up in, tending his mothers chickens and going to work each day to the auto-mechanic garage inherited from his father, though he rarely receives any business. Larry is ostracized by his entire community because of the disappearance of a girl last known to have been with Larry twenty-five years prior. The girl was never found, her disappearance never solved, and Larry never charged, but the rumors about him have grown into near mythology. Now another girl has disappeared, and all eyes are again on "Scary Larry." A shocking act of violence against Larry himself, however, begins to unravel long-held secrets, especially those held by Larry's former boyhood friend, Silas, now the town constable.

The story examines the question of how damning circumstantial evidence can be, especially in the court of public opinion, and how damaging utter alienation can be to a person.

Suspenseful, haunting, and vividly told, this story kept me reading late into the night. Highly recommended.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

A Good and Perfect Gift (memoir)

A Good and Perfect Gift by Amy Julia Becker

I was contacted by the publicist for the the publishing house that released this book earlier this month, asking if I would read it and feature it on my blog. Always interested in personal accounts of raising a child with Down syndrome, I was happy to oblige.

In this book, Amy Julia Becker tells a somewhat familiar story: full of hopes and dreams, she gives birth to a baby, shortly thereafter learns the baby has Down syndrome, experiences the shock and grief so many of us parents experience with that diagnosis, struggles to come to terms with it all, and eventually finds some semblance of peace. On a very general level, her story is not so different from my own, and so on a very general level I was able to relate.

However, her entire struggle to come to terms with her daughter's diagnosis is framed within her devout Christianity, and to this I could not at all relate. She struggles to reconcile her daughter's "imperfection" with the belief that her daughter is created in God's image. She struggles to find some divine meaning in her daughter's Down syndrome: is it a lesson from God? A punishment? A divine reward?

Additionally, Amy Julia and her husband are both highly educated high-achievers, and the author struggles mightily with the knowledge that her daughter, by virtue of having Down syndrome, has cognitive impairments. Although at some point in the book, she attempts to convey finally coming to terms with that and being able to see her daughter's value apart from her intelligence and abilities, I never got the sense that she actually did find a way to separate her daughter's value from her abilities. Throughout the latter half of the book, she spends a lot of time talking about all of her daughter's accomplishments (and at one point, when her daughter was a mere 14 months old, she and her husband buy a special treadmill for their daughter, determined to get her walking - I absolutely cringed at this). In fact, by her telling, her daughter does seem on the higher end of ability as far as Down syndrome goes, but I have to wonder how she would feel if her daughter were one of the children with Down syndrome who didn't walk until age 3, was non-verbal at age 5, and so forth.

Amy Julia Becker is a talented writer, but her story didn't resonate with me. I understand that she wanted to tell her story from her perspective, but framing it from such a devoutly Christian perspective constructs a barrier between her and non-Christian readers/parents of children with Down syndrome. This is not the worst memoir I've read about having a child with Down syndrome, but not the best either.

My copy is up for grabs if anyone wants it.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Girl's Guide to Homelessness (memoir)

There are people who have such sordid, distasteful stories from their pasts, that one has to wonder how such stories can be true, and not imagined, made up, or at least embellished. Brianna Karp is someone with a trailer-full of such stories. Growing up as a Jehovah's Witness (a sect which she vehemently calls a "cult"), she relays stories of terrible abuse and neglect at the hands of her parents. Headstrong and determined, however, she carves out an independent, successful life for herself in young adulthood, only to fall victim to the economic downturn of the last few years, losing her job and being forced to move back in with her bipolar, abusive mother. After a dramatic confrontation, Brianna is thrown out of the house by her mother, and with nowhere to go, she ends up living in a trailer (inherited from her biological father upon his gruesome suicide) in the parking lot of a local Walmart - officially "homeless." Equipped with a laptop (and nearly-free WiFi from a nearby Starbucks), a cell phone, and a P.O. Box, she spends her days job-hunting, sometimes picking up temp work, and blogging about her life as a homeless person. Along the way, she meets a man online who runs a website dealing with homeless issues, and they quickly fall in love, but this also ends badly.

Some quick research online reveals that there are people who claim to know Brianna and call into question the truth of the stories she outlines in her book. Is everything she claims about her childhood - or even her present circumstances - completely true? I have no idea. I do know that her stories from her childhood and young adulthood - especially those concerning her family - rival my own stories - stories of which a lot of people would probably have a hard time believing (right down to Brianna's mother making her drink dishwashing detergent for some infraction; my own mother made me drink Ivory Liquid detergent for telling a lie when I was all of seven years old).

In any case, I was drawn in by her utterly violent and dysfunctional upbringing, which resonated with my own childhood memories. The main reason I bought this book in the first place, though, is that her story takes place right in my city. She grew up in the town where I live, attended high school right down the street, and set up camp as a homeless person in the parking lot of the Walmart I've shopped at hundreds of times. It was a little surreal reading about places so close by and familiar to me.

She brings to light the plight of the homeless person and attempts to break down stereotypes, preconceived notions, misconceptions and prejudices towards the homeless, reminding us that we on the outside of homelessness have no idea what each homeless person's story is, and to make sweeping assumptions is wrong. She also illustrates how easy it can be for someone to lose everything, especially if they have little to begin with. Perhaps fewer of us are immune than we imagine.

If the book remained focused on this topic, it would be a better book. I enjoyed reading about her resourcefulness and ingenuity, and her outspokenness about prejudice against the homeless. Unfortunately, it strays off course about halfway through and becomes focused on her love affair with the man she meets over the internet - a love affair that, I think, anyone older and wiser can see from the beginning is doomed. Her writing is gritty and real - and definitely the voice you would expect from a street-wise yet somewhat naive and immature twenty-something girl.

It's a quick read, and worth it, I think, for the sake of making the reader think about homelessness.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Into Thin Air (non-fiction/memoir)

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

I didn't want to read this book. I'm not particularly a fan of adventure-type stories, and I have no interest in mountain climbing or Mount Everest. Even when my friend chose this book for this month's discussion for our book club, I wrote it off as one I'd pass on. So I picked up a different book from my to-read shelf (A Visit From the Goon Squad; have you read it? Thoughts?) and tried to read it, but try as I might, couldn't get into it and abandoned it about fifty pages in (that's generally the chance I'll give a book; if it doesn't grab me within the first fifty pages, I quit. There are too many good books to be read to suffer through a book that isn't enjoyable). At that point, I decided I'd give Into Thin Air a try.

I could not put this book down. In it, Jon Krakauer, then a pretty successful journalist, tells his personal account of the Mt. Everest disaster in May, 1996. Hired by Outside magazine to write an article about the commercialization of Everest expeditions, Krakauer, himself an accomplished mountaineer, convinces the magazine editors to put up the funds allowing him to actually go on one of these commercial expeditions to the summit of Mt. Everest, thereby allowing him to (a) give a firsthand account of the experience, and (b) fulfill a long-held dream of his to climb Mt. Everest. In sharp detail, he tells about that ill-fated Mt. Everest expedition, which ended up claiming the lives of twelve people.

This book really got to me. It's very suspenseful and graphic, and in all seriousness, it pervaded my dreams at night; just about every night during the week or so I spent reading this, visions on snow-covered mountains, glaciers, cliffs and crevasses filled my dreams. It's still very difficult for me to fathom what motivates certain people to engage in such sport that, really, is not only extremely dangerous, but just plain miserable.

Excellent book. It was published way back in 1997, so it's already been widely read, but if you haven't read it, I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

This Life Is In Your Hands (memoir)

In times of overload, I've joked about going to live "off the grid." Don't most of us, just once in a while, fantasize of abandoning the stress and frustration of modern, busy life in favor of something simpler, of getting back to basics? So when I read a book review of this new memoir recently about a family who did just that, I was intrigued. Plus, you know I have a weakness for a good memoir.

In 1968, Eliot and Sue Coleman, a young, idealistic east coast couple, both from white collar, middle class families, decided to shed materialism and modern living, with all its conveniences and pitfalls, and live by the fruits of their own labors, indebted to no one. They were part of a growing movement at the time of "back to the landers" or "homesteaders," people who were choosing to literally go off the grid and live off the land. The Colemans dreamed of a simpler and more fulfilling life, believing that being completely self-sufficient by way of living as completely as possible by the results of their own hard labor would be far more rewarding than living a typical modern life tied to materialism, economy, and unhealthful living. For $2,000 they bought sixty acres of land from Helen and Scott Nearing, natural living gurus at the time, who cultivated quite a following with their books, Living the Good Life and Continuing the Good Life. The young Colemans built a small house on their land with their own hands for $680, with no electricity or running water, and that would be their home for the next ten years.

The author, the Coleman's first child, born in that small cabin shortly after its completion, recounts her early childhood, growing up on that land, far away from modern society, as her parents cultivated what would become a very successful organic farm. Their idyllic life gradually gives way to its own strains and hardships, and finally tragedy, as the Coleman's second daughter, the author's younger sister, drowns in the pond her father dug for irrigation. You know from the beginning of the book that the baby sister drowns; it's just a matter of learning when. Soon after, an already strained marriage comes to a bitter end, and the author's mother retreats into depression. Finally, their "good life" on the farm comes to an end.

If there's any lesson to be had from all of this, it's that life follows you wherever you go.

Well worth the read.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Shape of the Eye (memoir)

The Shape of the Eye by George Estreich

A few weeks ago, in my email inbox was an email from a man I'd never heard of before, asking me if I would be willing to read a book he wrote and recently had published, and to write a review here on Book Lust. I still don't know how he stumbled upon my book blog, and I was flattered that a bona fide author would think that anything I had to say about a book might actually carry some weight with anyone. Without hesitation, I agreed to read and review his book because I was flattered to be asked, because I like the idea of having any sort of contact with an actual author (being a wannabe writer myself), but mostly because the subject matter of his book is near and dear to me.

I have read numerous memoirs about having a child with Down syndrome. The Shape of the Eye is, hands down, the best one I've read. Where Jennifer Graf-Groneberg's Road Map to Holland was a lifeline to me in the days and weeks immediately following my son Finnian's birth, diagnosis of Down syndrome, and major surgery as a newborn, soothing me and assuring me that the grief I was feeling was normal and that it would pass in time, The Shape of the Eye examines that grief, without judgment.

Like so many parents of children with Down syndrome, George Estreich and his wife were shocked by their second daughter's diagnosis soon after her birth, and like so many of us, they found themselves suddenly thrust into the alien territory of raising a child who is different, who is largely, in an abstract way, seen as defective by society. His book, which he spent nearly a decade doing research for and writing, is a personal, heartfelt, often witty, account of raising a child with Down syndrome. More than that, however, it is also a historical account of what has shaped our attitudes about Down syndrome - the truths, half-truths, non-truths, contradictions, and paradoxes. This is a book not only about Down syndrome, but about family, and ethnicity, preconceived notions, and what it means to belong.

Mr. Estreich, a stay-at-home dad and a poet by profession, is an extremely gifted writer. I could not stop turning the pages and throughout the book often felt as if I could easily sit down with him over coffee and shoot the shit about Down syndrome, about parenting, about family, about life.

Five stars. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Autobiography of a Face (memoir)

It's funny . . . I picked up a paperback edition of this book a couple of years ago and, like so many books I buy (buying books is a vice with me), it sat on my to-be-read shelf for a long time, untouched, while I made my way through dozens of other books. Eventually I did a book purging, as I occasionally do, attempting to honestly assess the likelihood of my ever actually reading each book sitting on my to-be-read shelf. This one was given away with a stack of other books, never having been opened by me.

Then my book club chose Truth & Beauty by Ann Patchett for this month's discussion, and my interest in Autobiography of a Face was rekindled. Now I wanted to know more about this Lucy Grealy, the friend Ann Patchett wrote about, and the book that made Lucy famous. Fortunately, I didn't have to re-buy the book; a friend had a copy and graciously sent it to me. I started it yesterday morning and finished it right at dinnertime today. Yes, it was that absorbing; I couldn't put it down.

"I spent five years of my life being treated for cancer, but since then I've spent fifteen years being treated for nothing other than looking different from everyone else. It was the pain from that, from feeling ugly, that I always viewed as the great tragedy of my life. The fact that I had cancer seemed minor in comparison."

Diagnosed at age 9 with a rare form of cancer, Lucy went through a long, hellish ordeal of radiation and chemo, as well as an operation to remove the cancerous tumor from her face, which also necessitated removing a large portion of her lower jaw, leaving her disfigured. What followed were years and years of failed reconstructive surgeries and a self-loathing, both for being what she perceived as ugly, and for allowing herself to be so weak as to care that she was ugly.

What I found so engrossing was how deeply introspective she seemed to be at all times. Whether she actually was so clear of thought as a child experiencing the things she later writes about, or whether the insights only came to her later as she wrote of her experiences, it's hard to know, but in any case, her book is extremely reflective and insightful. A lot of it resonated with me, also, in the sense that she expresses very movingly how the aftermath of cancer can sometimes be more difficult, more painful, than cancer and cancer treatment themselves, and just how tied one's physical and/or aesthetic condition is to one's sense of worth.

When I read Truth & Beauty, I did not like the person Ann Patchett wrote about as her friend, Lucy Grealy. I feel like I have a much better understanding of Lucy now, and finally the compassion - and even admiration - I was unable to find for her when I was reading T & B. I really think that Ann Patchett's book should not be read without also reading Autobiography of a Face.

Movie Review: The Help

When a movie comes out based on a book that my book club has read, we like to get a group together to go see the movie. This past Friday night, a handful of us went to see The Help, based on Kathryn Stockett's 2009 novel, which quickly became a bestseller and a book club fave. Without being redundant and giving a synopsis of the story again (which you can read here in my review of the book), I will say that the movie was very good - better than I thought it would be. I was expecting a sort of shallow, aesthetically pleasing version that only skimmed the surface of the original story; I don't know why, except that the movie poster gives the impression of light-heartedness and not drama or emotion. The movie was great, though: the characters were all believable (Ron Howard's daughter, Dallas Howard, did an amazing job as the horrible Hilly Holbrook), and the sets, costumes and script were authentic. I think this movie could stand on its own even without having read the book.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Face of Hope (memoir)

Face of Hope by Carol Guscott

On an ordinary day in July of 1994, Carol Guscott went to work at her lumber yard in her native Jamaica, where two men attacked her, pouring battery acid in her eyes and on her face, leaving her blind and disfigured. This is her story in her own words of coming to America searching for physical, emotional, and spiritual healing. Over the course of many years, she faced the anguish of looking different, of learning to live without sight, of undergoing dozens of surgical procedures, and all the while, barely scraping by financially but for the charity of others through her own fundraising efforts and word of mouth. Through it all, she maintains an unshakable faith that God is looking after her, and her ordeal and trials serve a larger purpose.

In all honesty, this is not a book I would have sought out. It was given to me by the author herself, who is a friend of a friend, and she asked me to read it and review it on my blog and just generally get the word out so other people will read it. While I appreciate her perseverance in the face of so much adversity, the heavily faith-based flavor is not something that appeals to me, nor am I swayed to "see God at work in the course of my life," as she entreats her readers to do in the book's introduction. I think being so heavy on Christian faith, this book is limited to a very niche audience: like-minded Christians.

Nevertheless, read it and decide for yourself; it might just be your cup of tea.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Truth & Beauty: A Friendship (memoir)

What is especially unique about this memoir is that it's not anyone's life story, or even, really, an anecdote from somebody's life, as memoirs so often are. If this book could have another appropriately descriptive title, it might be Autobiography of a Friendship.

Still, it's not a typical friendship. It's the story - really, the complete life cycle, from beginning to end - of the friendship between the author, Ann Patchett, and Lucy Grealy, best known for her book, Autobiography of a Face, which recounts her experience with a rare cancer with which she was diagnosed in childhood which left her severely disfigured, and the physical and emotional aftermath. Ann and Lucy met in college, but it wasn't until they became roommates while attending postgraduate school that the friendship between them was really born. Spanning almost two decades, during which both women become bestselling writers, always underlying the friendship is Lucy's desperate, nearly suffocating need for love, acceptance, and adoration, and ultimately, her self-destructive behavior that ends the friendship with absolute finality.

Knowing the ongoing ordeal Lucy existed under as a result of her childhood cancer, I wanted to have compassion for her, and if looking at her through a black and white lens, it's very easy to chalk up her "issues" to her being so victimized by circumstances beyond her control. Just below the surface of obviousness, though, was a person I found very difficult to actually like. She was manipulative, selfish, demanding, insensitive, narcissistic, and irresponsible.

This is not an uplifting read, but it is very thought-provoking. In addition to the spotlighted theme of friendship, threaded throughout the story are themes like perception, beauty, addiction, codependency, enabling, and the price of unconditional love. Lots to ponder.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Faithful Place (Crime/Mystery/Thriller)

Faithful Place by Tana French

It's official, Tana French is one of my new favorite authors! She has quite a gift for spinning a story with intriguing twists and turns, and developing characters that seem real enough to touch.

Faithful Place is the third book in Ms. French's Dublin Murder Squad series - which are only loosely connected to each other. This book stars Det. Frank Mackey, an undercover cop first introduced in book II of the series, The Likeness. In that book he was merely a peripheral character, and a rather slick, unlikeable one at that. In Faithful Place, we get to know Frank much more intimately, and it turns out that, although extremely flawed, he's also very human and likable.

Twenty-two years ago, Frank Mackey, age 19, planned to run away to London with the love of his life, Rosie Daly. The night they planned to skip town together, though, Rosie never shows up. Instead, Frank finds a note penned by Rosie, indicating that she's decided to dump him and run off to make a life of her own. Broken-hearted, but determined to escape his toxic family, Frank walks away from Faithful Place that night anyway, and doesn't return until now, when a suitcase bearing Rosie's possessions and ferry tickets to London are found in a run-down, long ago abandoned house in their childhood neighborhood. What really happened to Rosie Daly all those years ago? Frank is determined to find out.

I kept turning pages, eating it all up and wanting more, and when the book finally came to a close, I just wanted more from this author! unfortunately, her next book isn't due out in the U.S. until March of 2012.

Five stars to this one - if you're a fan of this genre, you won't be disappointed.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

A Stolen Life (memoir)

A Stolen Life by Jaycee Dugard

Like probably most everyone else, I've been riveted by stories in magazines and in the news about Jaycee Dugard. And like probably most everyone else, I've had a morbid curiosity about what actually happened during her captivity. Her face once again graced the cover of last week's People magazine, and ABC televised an hour-long candid interview this past Sunday night between Jaycee and Diane Sawyer. I forgot to record the interview Sunday night but watched it in snippets throughout the day on Monday, and found myself often in awe, and often in tears. Her memoir was due to be released on Tuesday, so I preordered it on my iPad so it would download as soon as it became available, and it downloaded Monday evening. That night I read the first 100 pages without stopping.

This is her detailed account of what happened: how one June morning in 1991, she walked to the bus stop like on any other ordinary school day, only on this day, a man by the name of Phillip Garrido pulled up alongside her in his car, reached his hand out the window, and paralyzed her with a stun gun, and then, with the help of his wife, Nancy, abducted her, drove her to their home a couple hours away and proceeded to keep her in captivity in their backyard for the next eighteen years. Eighteen years! It's almost inconceivable. During this time, she becomes no less than Phillip Garrido's sex slave and bears two children by him, giving birth both times in the squalid backyard, the first time when she was only fourteen years old.

It is an utterly riveting read, and yet, extremely difficult and disturbing. What this girl endured was horrific, and I honestly don't think I could have read it had I not known that in the end, she triumphs.

I got the impression that the book is intentionally not over-edited; it has a very stream-of-consciousness tone to it and very much reads like a young girl pouring her heart and memories out. And yes, she does still come across as very young; her writing has a very adolescent tone to it, which makes perfect sense - she was abducted at the age of eleven, and in a big way began a state of almost suspended animation at that point, being robbed of all the ordinary life experiences that mature a person.

It's very much worth reading, but not for the faint-of-heart.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Angel Experiment

The Angel Experiment (Maximum Ride, Book 1) by James Patterson

"If you dare read this story you become part of the Experiment. I know it sounds a little mysterious- but it's all I can say for now," - Max.

Maximum Ride is a 14 year old girl who, as the oldest, leads a group of 5 other kids.  With the help of the only adult they've ever trusted (who they now believe is dead), they are kidnapped from the lab where they have spent their short lives as experiments.  98% human and 2% avian, these children are stronger than average human adults, have powers and abilities in constant development, and ... they have WINGS!

As if these children don't have enough enough problems, they are being hunted by more genetically altered children who are part human, part wolf.

The book follows Max and her "family" as the youngest of the group has been kidnapped and taken back to the lab.  In an effort to rescue her, the other members fight to stay ahead of their attackers and learn more about where they came from and why they are what they are.

I downloaded this book in December 2009 and just got around to reading it this week.  I think I have read James Patterson in the past, but I can't remember the title, so I went into this book not knowing what to expect.  I went into this blind - reading no descriptions or reviews - and was surprised that it was written for kids (recommended 7th grade and up).

The story was written well, the language clean and the violence and gore (fights between the bird like kids and the wolf like kids) were kept to a minimum.  I actually enjoyed the book and I am anxious to see what my daughter thinks of the story as well.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Little House in the Big Woods

Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder

I have been waiting for what seems like half a lifetime to have daughters I could share the Little House books with. They were a truly beloved part of my childhood; I first read the series when I was eight or so, and so began my long love affair with Laura Ingalls. I spent many years of my childhood dreaming of actually being her one day, I was so enamored with her version of life on the American frontier.

My twin girls will soon be seven, and my youngest daughter is approaching five, so I thought this summer would be high time I introduced them to Laura Ingalls Wilder. I read a chapter at a time to them, and we finished Little House in the Big Woods tonight. It didn't disappoint. It's interesting that even in this age of high technology and childhoods jam-packed with enriching, educational, and organized activities, the story of a simpler time, when little girls had corn cobs for dolls and lived in little two-room log houses, can still so enthrall modern-day children. Even my nine-year old son and fourteen-year old son often came in to listen when I was reading to the girls!

Little House in the Big Woods covers about a year in the life of a little girl named Laura, who lives with her Ma and Pa and two sisters, Mary and Baby Carrie, in a log house in the woods of Wisconsin. It describes the hard work that was required of everyone in the family in order to contribute to the family's well-being, including frank accounts of hog butchering and deer hunting - festive events in those times! - the humble manner in which they lived, the expectation that children behave (including a number of references to one child or another having his hide tanned), and the love they had for each other.

The Little House books are based on the author's early life, but the stories are admittedly embellished and certain things fictionalized to make a better story. Still, from historical accounts of Laura's actual life, apparently the books she is famous for having written (which she didn't begin writing until she was in her sixties!) do capture the essence of the life she lived in late nineteenth-century mid-west America.

I can't wait to get started on Farmer Boy with the girls!

If you haven't read these books since your own childhood, go ahead, read them again. You'll love them just as much now as you did then.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Story of Beautiful Girl (novel)

The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon

On a stormy night in 1968, a young woman and an older black man arrive at the door of an aging widow's farmhouse. With them is a very newly born baby. The young woman is intellectually disabled; she has escaped the institution in which she has lived since childhood, with the help of her companion, who is deaf, to give birth to this baby, the result of a brutal rape at the hands of an institution staff member. Before the night is over, police, searching for the two escaped residents of "The School" as the institution is known, raid the widow's home and haul Lynnie, the young woman, back to the institution, but not before she manages to hide her newborn daughter in the old woman's attic, and her companion manages to escape into the woods.

The story follows the next forty-plus years, during which the old woman raises the baby, hiding the child's parentage and heritage; Lynnie survives many more years at the institution before it is finally closed down, living constantly with a hole in her heart for her baby, and Homan, her companion of that fateful night, spends years on the run, but always hungering to find his way back to Lynnie - or "Beautiful Girl" as he has named her - and the baby, who, although he didn't father, he did help deliver on that rainy night in 1968.

I really, really wanted to like this book more than I actually did. The premise drew me in, but I found that the way the author chose to present each chapter from a different character's point of view, and with several years lapsing between each chapter, it was difficult to become attached to any of the characters. It felt like there were too many time-gaps; I think the story could have been much more engaging had it been told entirely from a third-person omniscient narrative perspective, with a smoother, more filled in time-line. I also found the overall story to be just plain hard to believe; at its heart, it's a feel-good story with happy endings, and I didn't find it to be realistic given the subject matter and general premise of the story. Overall, it's a very readable book, but I think it could have been so much more.

My hardcover is up for grabs.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Likeness (Crime/Mystery/Thriller)

The Likeness by Tana French

Following up In The Woods, Ms. French brings us a new murder to solve from the perspective of Det. Cassie Maddox. A young woman, bearing not only an eerie resemblance to Det. Maddox, but also the name of an alias Det. Maddox used while working undercover, is found dead in an abandoned cottage. To solve this bizarre case, Det. Maddox goes undercover once again, slipping into the shoes and the life of the murdered woman in an attempt to solve the murder from the inside out. Lots of twists and turns develop; I was very much on the edge of my seat and left guessing to the end.

Though I was disappointed that some unresolved issues from In The Woods were not actually resolved in this follow-up novel - this isn't a sequel in the sense that it continues the story from the previous book; rather, it's an entirely new case with some of the same characters from the previous book - this was another book I could sink my teeth into and that had me turning pages late into the night.

Highly recommend for anyone who enjoys mystery/thrillers.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

In the Woods (Crime/Mystery/Thriller)

In the Woods by Tana French

Until I read the The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy last year, it had been years since I had read anything from the thriller/mystery genre, and I was reminded how much I enjoy it.

In the Woods takes us to modern day Dublin, Ireland, where Detectives Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox, both rookies on the Murder Squad, take on the investigation of the brutal murder of a young girl. Twenty years before, Detective Ryan had ventured into the woods with his two best friends, and only he came out alive, his friends gone without a trace, and his memory wiped clean. Can the two events be related? In trying to solve the murder of the young girl, Det. Ryan attempts to delve into his own past and struggle to resurrect his memory of the day his friends disappeared - and the process takes a great toll on him.

Although I found the relationship between the two detectives unlikely, and aspects of the story somewhat unsatisfying, all in all, this was a book that I could sink my teeth into. The author has a gift for luscious descriptions and creating scenes that come alive. Full of suspense, it had me on the edge of my seat. I've always been extremely fascinated by forensic science, and this story is full of it. Much of it is disturbing; a lot of people talk about Alice Siebold's The Lovely Bones and the graphic nature of the young protagonist's murder and how repelling it is; if one is familiar with that book and has steered clear of it because of the content, this may be a book to steer clear of as well. However, if you like a good mystery/thriller, I highly recommend this one.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Life, Sex and Ideas: The Good Life Without God (Philosophy)

Life, Sex and Ideas: The Good Life Without God by A.C. Grayling

Despite the title, this book is not an atheist manifesto, nor is it largely about sex. The author, a professor of philosophy at Oxford University, does devote a chapter to sex, and touches on religion throughout the book, but really, more than anything, it is a book about thinking and ideas. Grayling is a gifted essayist, and each chapter is actually an essay - most only two or three pages long - covering such topics as marriage, guns, utopia, suicide, nature, and dozens more. Although he makes clear to the reader where he stands, each chapter is a nugget of wisdom and delectable food for thought.

This is my first foray into philosophy and I loved it. Very stimulating and thought-provoking; I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in opening their mind, or those who value open-mindedness, insightfulness, and introspection.

I'm keeping my copy - I liked it that much.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

An Object of Beauty (novel)

An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin

I am a huge fan of the multi-talented Steve Martin. There was a time when I knew him as only a comedian/comedic actor. Over time I discovered that he's also an accomplished musician and writer, among other things. When I came across Shopgirl, a novella by Steve Martin I gobbled it up and found one more reason to love him. Likewise, I loved The Pleasure of My Company.

An Object of Beauty centers around Lacey Yeager, a young, beautiful, ambitious woman who takes the art world of New York by storm, starting out at the bottom of the art-world food chain working in "the bins" at Sotheby's, and climbing her way up the ladder, not always honestly, until she opens a gallery of her own. She charms, sleeps, steals, and works her way to the top.

Of the three novels by Steve Martin that I've now read, this is my least favorite, partly because I felt out of my element, being extremely un-knowledgeable about art or the art world, and partly because I didn't find the main character likeable. She's shallow and crass and insensitive, and it was just hard to care what happened to her. I'm not even sure the story has a point - it kind of trails off into an unsatisfying ending, and I turned the final page thinking only, "Huh."

I'll still read more of his writing though!

This one's on my iPad, so I can't pass it along.

Sunday, April 10, 2011


Exposure by Brandilyn Collins

We all have fears and the majority of us manage to work around them.

But what if you couldn't?  What if your anxiety caused issues in your daily affairs?  And what if your worst fears came true?

Kaycee Ray writes a newspaper column that pokes fun at her own paranoia.  Her claustrophobia, her fear of bees, rollers coasters, dentists, heights ... the list goes on.  Her paranoia helps her reach out to others, helps them overcome their own issues, but it also publicly alerts everyone to her less than reliable state of mind.  The local police have come to expect her frantic phone calls of being "followed", of being "watched".

But when Kaycee stands alone in her house and a camera set on her table takes a picture of her - all by itself - she knows this is more than just her irrational fears talking to her.  Then the child of a close friend runs away from home to live with Kaycee, but never makes it to her house.  And pictures of a dead man, the smell of blood, the sound of footsteps and screams are all too real for her.

Kaycee thinks that she inherited her irrational fears from her mother, but in reality, she finds that her mom had more than a vivid imagination to fear.

This was a freebie on my kindle that I'd downloaded months ago.  I'd begun the book several times but never got very far into the first chapter.  I can't really tell you why, just that it hadn't spiked a real interest.

I sat down with it again, determined to get through it, and was somewhat surprised.  It was definitely an interesting look into paranoia and fears that can stop a person cold.  Having a fear of heights myself, I am familiar with the anxiety the author described.  I was also drawn into the suspense and mystery behind the stories.

What I didn't enjoy?  I'm not a fan of books that switch perspective from once chapter to the next.  This book was really two stories - one of Kaycee and the happenings in her current day life, and one of a mafia run bank heist that involved a family with a sick child. The book goes on to bring the two stories together, but for me, it's just a personal peeve of mine to jump back and forth.  I always tend to find one side more interesting than the other, so I tend to feel the book drags out.

This book is listed as Christian fiction, but religion did not play a huge part in the book.  I actually read a review or two that expressed upset over the fact that it seemed to be missing.

The story itself was good, suspenseful and well thought out.  I don't have much experience with the mystery/suspense genre, but it was an easy read for when I didn't have a lot of time to invest at each sitting.  I did figure out the connection of the two stories fairly early in the book, is that normal? or just a sign of too much crime drama TV??  ;0)

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Uncoupling (a novel)

The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer

I admit that a great many of the books I read come straight from the book reviews in the People magazine that is delivered through my mail slot every Thursday afternoon. This book was one of those; I saw the review in People and was so intrigued that I immediately downloaded it to my iPad and read it in three days.

Set in an average, if progressive, suburb of New Jersey, the story centers around certain faculty members of a local high school and their families. A new drama teacher is hired and for the annual winter play, she chooses Lysistrata, a Greek comedy about a slew of women going on a sex strike in protest of a protracted war. As soon as the cast of the play is put in place and rehearsals begin, a strange spell is slowly but surely cast over all the females in town, rendering them done with sex. As each female is overcome by the cold wind of the spell, she immediately loses desire and retreats from the male (or males, as the case may be) in her life. Even seemingly good, solid marriages come to a screeching sexual halt, and nobody understands what is happening. Everything comes to a climax - no pun intended - on the night of the play, and . . . well, I don't want to spoil it, so I'll say no more.

While I wouldn't rate this a great literary work, the author has a sharp wit and excellent insight, I think, into male-female relationships. Although the subject matter is sex, it's not pornographic or even very graphic for that matter - it's really more about relationships. The story is an easy, engaging read, and the subject matter is so intriguing that I found that it moved along very quickly. While I was personally a little horrified at how casually and matter-of-factly the story deals with sex among high-schoolers (probably because I am on the brink of having a high-schooler myself), it certainly raises some very thought-provoking questions about the role of desire in relationships, the ebb and flow of it, the importance of the sexual side of relationships - especially long-term ones - and how the differing needs and wants of men and women in relationships so easily leads to conflict.

I think this would be an excellent book club choice! It would be fascinating, and probably very bonding and therapeutic, to sit among an intimate group of women and talk honestly and openly about the role of sex and desire in our relationships. I hope someone will choose it for my book club at some point!

Monday, April 4, 2011

Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer's Life (biography)

Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer's Life by Pamela Smith Hill

Having been a voracious reader for as long as I can remember, I'm pretty sure that Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books was the first complete series I read, and I was also a devoted fan of the television series, Little House on the Prairie. It's the truth when I say that growing up, I wanted to be Laura Ingalls.

Finally reading a biography about the real Laura Ingalls Wilder after all these years was fascinating. I have to admit that in some ways, having the real Laura Ingalls exposed took a bit of the shine off the fantasy I had grown up with and still find myself holding dear today. I guess on some level I realized that the Little House series of books are fiction based on Ms. Wilder's actual life experiences, but to read in detail about how facts were changed, embellished, etc. for the sake of artistry was a little like finding out that Santa Clause isn't real.

Still, it's a very good book. The author delves into not only Laura's true life experiences, but presents a detailed portrait of how Laura crafted the books that would become iconic. It also discusses at length the role her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, played both in Laura's personal and professional lives. I was surprised to learn about the controversy that exists as to how involved Rose was in the writing of the Little House series (did she merely edit them or actually ghost-write them?), as well as the fact that Laura and her daughter had an often contentious relationship.

If you are a Little House fan, or a fan of a good biography, I highly recommend this book. I am definitely inspired now to go searching for my old Little House books wherever they are packed away.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Forgotten: Seventeen and Homeless

Forgotten: Seventeen and Homeless by Melody Carlson

As if seventeen wasn't hard enough ... Adele finally thinks her mom has got things under control when she moves them to a new city, with a new job and actual money in the bank.  Adele immediately finds herself loving her new life, her new school and her new friends.

But the fun doesn't last long.  Mom is bipolar and like her good moods, all good things come to an end.  Suddenly, the rent is past due, there is no more food in the house and after a fight with her daughter, mom flees the scene with her new pothead boyfriend.

Adele is forced to make it on her own.  She gets a job, lives out of the pothead's abandoned van, and tries her best to go on as if nothing has changed ... but how long can that possibly last?

Another freebie on Kindle, and I actually read the book's description before diving into the book itself.  Two things drew me in - a mother with bipolar and a teenager trying to make it on her own.  The story line intrigued me, being both bipolar and trying a short stint on the streets as a teen myself, I felt I could relate.

The story itself was half believable.  Adele seems to be a fairly well thought out character, but the supporting characters lacked realness.  One character in particular, I really grew to like, but then the author cut her out of the story without any real information. Towards the end of the book, Adele is introduced to a priest, who plays a very minimal part in the book.  At the end, Adele goes to him for help and is told if she finds god, she finds help.  Suddenly there is a couple willing to take her in and care for her so that she can finish school, her old employer takes her back and her boyfriend is forgiving of being lied to for months.

Really?  all because of god?  not because she actually told someone that she was alone and struggling.  not because she asked for help.  but because she found god?

I have no problem reading about people who find strength in their faith, but this came out of no where and left me feeling like someone was trying to prove a miracle and wrap up the book in a pretty gold bow.

I consider this an easy read, for those times when you need something to fill in the days between the "next great read", but I wouldn't go out of my way to look for it.