Monday, November 26, 2012

It's always amazing to me what people believed about illness and the world of medicine before actual research was done to find cures. When I started reading this wonderful historical novel by Ami McKay, author of The Birth House, I really didn't expect it to involve a real, actual cure with a real, actual virgin. But I don't know why I let the basic depravity of man ever surprise me. The world in which some humans are worth far more than others still exists today and is brought to light in McKay's book.
This is the story of a young girl named Moth who lives in Lower Manhattan in 1871. Abandoned by her gypsy, alchoholic mother, she is forced to fend for herself. Just when all prospects of survival seem lost, she sees a beatifully dressed girl in the street who befriends her and takes her to a place she says will change Moth's life for the better. When Moth realizes it is an upscale brothel, catering to Manhattan's "finest" men in search of the elusive virgin mistress. She is warned of men who have a mysterious disease (syphilis)who might want her viginity to heal them, and yet she is undeterred. She knows this is her only hope for survival in a cruel world. In the brothel she has all the food and clothes she wants and needs as well as friends and bed to sleep in. What more should she want? 
It is through the love and hope of the woman doctor who works for the brothel that Moth comes to see that there could be other alternatives for her. But can Moth feel as though she is worth this kindness from a stranger? Is she worth more than the price of her virginity? Could a woman in such a time and circumstance be happy and have a life of her very own? You'll have to read The Virgin Cure to find out.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Delirium and Pandemonium by Lauren Oliver

What would happen if we could not feel love? Would there still be hate if there was no love? Would we be able to know happiness if there was no love? These are the tantalizing questions posed in these two dystopian YA books by Lauren Oliver, Delirium and Pandemonium.

In Delirium, Lena is approaching her 18th birthday, the day when she can receive "the cure" that is mandated by the government as necessary. It is a vaccination against a type of killing illness they call the "deliria nervosa" which in essence, is love. Love has been deemed the root of all evil and conflict, as it is apparent that the U.S. has experienced a devastating war (although this is not talked about in the book.) The theory is that if people cannot feel love, then they will also not feel any kind of passion at all, and so conflicts such as wars will be a thing of the past. Lena is all for the cure. She wants to protect herself from this infection - that is until she meets a boy named Alex. At first she thinks that Alex is "cured" and so poses no danger to her. But the more she gets to know him, the more she finds out about his past and his goals for the future. The question then is, will Lena risk everything in her life - security, family, friends - in order to experience love? Pandemonium continues the saga and leaves you with a shocker for an ending.

I could not stop reading this compelling story, one book right after the other. There is just something about this dystopian trend in YA right now. And I'm loving it. Now, tell me what you think!

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Submission by Amy Waldman

Of all the wonderful books on our Valley Book Club reading list this year, this was one that I was really excited about. I mean, what a premise! A Muslim architect is chosen as the winner of the 911 Memorial design contest. He's as American as anyone in America. Will they let him win? Will his design be seen as truly American, as he is, or will it be shoved under the carpet as a cruel joke, a terrorist plot in the making, or just a visual that people cannot stand to visit?

I know, wow, right? And this premise really works as a catalyst for good discussion, thought, contemplation of our own prejudices. But the story surrounding this premise was, unlike the idea, utterly lacking in excitement. The back story of the beautiful woman on the memorial jury who lost her husband was bland. The story of the deadbeat turned hero and activist because he lost his older brother in the tragedy seemed contrived. The only story line that created any interest was that of the designer himself, Mohammad Khan, who while being sort of the hero in the story because of his willingness to fight for what is right (his win and his memorial) becomes someone I don't even really like very much, and I can't really say why. I like him because he has overcome the prejudices he faces in America to become a brilliant designer and successful man, but for some reason, by the end of the book it becomes hard to root for him. His fight for what is right becomes more about his ego. He is totally unable to express to anyone what the memorial means to him, what it should mean to the people of post-911 America, and he refuses to answer questions about it, even from those who are fighting with him to do what's right.  At some point I just wanted to scream, "Come on! Make your point! Don't wait for others to think it's so obvious and don't wait for them to do it for you!" 

I did think the book did an excellent job of expressing all the points of view that were possible in way that didn't make anyone's view look crazy or stupid. Even those who fought against the memorial and against Khan as a person seemed to really have reasons that most readers would sympathize with. They had reasons. Everyone has reasons.The author really leaves it for the reader to decide which reasons are legitimate and which are extremist in their own right.

So, if you're looking for a fast-paced political page-turner, this is not it. But if you like to take your time and read a story about issues that affect us every day, then this is it. Give The Submission a fair review, and then let me know what you think!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Still Alice by Lisa Genova

This is the Valley Book Club's pick for this month, and when we voted for it, I believe it was the one with the most votes overall. Its timely topic of Alzheimer's disease and its first person narrative had everone intrigued.
The book documents a year in the life of Alice Howland, a Harvard linguistics professor who is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's. It begins with those little "forgetfulness" symptoms, and progresses with a diagnosis for the hereditary gene for the disease. This finding is shocking to her three children, who must then decide how they want their lives to proceed, in fear, in normality, or in joy. The symptoms that Alice experiences progress month by month, and seem very realistic, and so increasingly frightening both for the characters and the reader.
As I read, I felt that it was wonderful for an author with such knowledge to write such a needed book on the topic. As I said, I felt it was an extremely realistic portayal, although I have no real experience with the disease. I did find the writing very dry and hard to get through, but perhaps it was this way for a reason, as it did fit the character's personality to some degree and the straightforwardness of her diagnosis. The first time I started the book, I got about a third of the way, and I had to stop. I forced myself to pick it up again and finished it in about an hour. Am I glad I did? I'm not sure. I know this is a part of real life, but perhaps that's why I didn't enjoy it. It was just too real for me, even though I have never had a close loved-one go through this. It was extrememly depressing to me, and while this is natural with such a topic, it left me exhausted and not very satisfied.
The character of Alice was very miserable as time went on, but she did seem to still find joy in some things, and that was uplifting. She also didn't seem to get very upset or agitated at the very end of the book with all the "not knowing." She seemed to somehow grow accustomed to her life. I'm just not sure that that is realistic. But maybe it is, and caregivers should take solace in the fact that perhaps Alzheimer's patients do grow comfortable with the simplicity of their world. There are no real decisions to be made and no real conflicts for them other than the physical day-to-day workings of their bodies. So maybe it should be comforting to know that those like Alice can be happy in their simpler lives as long as those around them are caring and comforting always. I will continue to pray that this is true.
In the same way that the book A Million Little Pieces was a  realistic account of a life, one that helped thousands of people who read it come to terms with and understand drug addiction, so will Still Alice help those dealing with Alzheimer's. If you need to understand Alzheimer's without getting bogged down in a lot medical terminology or confusing articles on the Internet, then this book could really help.But let me know what you think. Post a comment. I'd love to hear from you.

The Power of Six and The Rise of Nine by Pittacus Lore

The I am Number Four series for young adults is a fascinating mix of sci-fi, love story, supernatural heroes, and thriller plot. I loved the first one and its movie counterpart, so I had to continue the next two, and I anxiously await another.
The premise is a great one, although a bit more sci-fi than I usually go in for. It goes like this: ten children and their Cepans (or mentors) were sent from the planet Lorien to Earth in order to escape the evil Mogadorians who took over their planet for its life-giving resources. The children grew up on Earth, trying to stay hidden and protected until their special powers developed that would enable them to protect themselves and Earth from the Mogdorians. There is an interesting curse put on them that will only let them be killed in their preordained numerical order. At the start of the first book, the first three children were already dead, and so the hunt began for Number Four, also known as John Smith. He is aided by Number Six, who is the female focus of the second book, and it was my favorite. More characters/children are introduced and their backstories unfold: how they have survived, what their lives are like on Earth, and what their unique powers, or "legacies" are. They each also have a "chest" that is filled with cool gadgets from Lorien which they must learn to use to fight the Mogadorians.
It seems like a lot of weird details to get bogged down in, but the pace of the books is super fast. The action literally never stops and sometimes gets a bit exhausting, but all the characters are interestingly intertwined, and they fight not only for themselves, but each other and their human helpers. The writing is much simpler than books like Divergent and The Hunger Games, and the plot not as complex, but these stories are full of action and are easy reads for teens and adults alike who are trying to escape reality and just get involved in a page-turning thriller. I would also recommend them to middle grade girls and boys as well, as the love interest is not central or very detailed,the themes are quite inspiring, and as I said, the language and dialog are timely and simple.
So, if you're in the mood for a quick, involving thrill ride, try the rest of the I am Number Four series. And then wait impatiently for the next movie, as I will!

Wingshooters by Nina Revoyr

This was the Valley Book Club's pick for last month, and the person who suggested it should be applauded. Revoyr's writing style and personal touch made this story of childhood struggle and racism come alive.

Michelle, a Japanese American girl born to "free-spirited" parents, must go to live with her white, paternal grandparents in Wisconsin when her mother unexpectedly disappears. Her father swears to her that he is just going to find her mother and will return, but this is postponed over and over again by his lack of commitment to Michelle. Meanwhile, Mikey, as her grandfather Charlie comes to call Michelle, grows very attached to her grandfather and her life in a small town despite its obvious prejudices against Japanese Americans following the war. Charlie keeps her close and protected from abuse as much as possible, despite his own racism toward the black couple who move to their town. It is this conflict, both in their small community and within the characters themselves that create the struggle and ultimate catalyst to disaster in the book. How can someone be color blind in one instance and totally prejudiced in another? What are we willing to do for love and family ties in such a conflict? In the end, it is Charlie who is put to this ultimate test.

Wingshooters is a poignant and beautiful look at many things: childhood, prejudice, abandonment, and loyalty. There is much here to talk about in a slim, easily readable volume. Put it on your list of "must reads" today!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Divergent and Insurgent by Veronica Roth

I picked these young adult novels out because of a teen recommendation, and I have to say, I really think they are going to be the next big thing. At first, I was a little put off that they are kind of billed as the next Hunger Games, and indeed there did seem to be a lot of similarities - at first. Then as I got into the first book in the planned trilogy, Divergent, it became evident that this was a very different and unique idea being plotted here: That society could be divided into groups according to our main personality characteristics within that society.  How will society react when we slip the mold or try to become our true, authentic selves?

So the scene is some kind of post-war Chicago. The author does not say what type of war it was or really when it was, but the windy city is partially rubble, partly rebuilt, and partly just livable how it is. So, it is a dystopian novel like The Hunger Games and The Giver. But inside this society, there are five factions. When kids are 16 they decide which faction they belong to according to their own personality traits. They can choose the one they grew up in until they were 16, or they can "jump" factions to belong to one that is more truly their own personality or strength.

The story in both books centers around Beatrice, or Tris, who, on faction choosing day, decides she will leave her parents' faction, Abnegation, for the more dangerous and somewhat glamorous Dauntless faction because her "entrance test" is inconclusive, which is highly irregular. She must then go to train to be brave by facing all of her fears using fictional technology where the kids are injected with something that creates a delusion or scene in which they, in their mind, must face their worst nightmares. What becomes evident in Tris, however, is that she is somehow different from the other kids in Dauntless.Because she has strengths in more than one area, she is considered Divergent, and therefore dangerous to the society because she will not necessarily comply to the rules of any one faction. Although the intricacies of the plot are quite complicated and the metaphors for life and society that are flung around are extremely thought-provoking, there is also the simplicity of friendship and young love. Along the way, Tris makes some very loyal friends, and one in particular who will test her own ideas of love, bravery, selflessness, and self.

I got into a heated discussion one day about The Hunger Games and its appropriateness for children. While I won't go into that discussion here, I just wanted to say a word to those who say those books and the movie are just "about kids killing kids." What I want to ask is this: do we or do we not send boys and girls to war at the age of 18? Do we believe that those kids of 18 see horrible things and may have to kill someone? Of course we do. Is it a "bad" thing to do, therefore, to write a book about kids at war with terrible forces? I don't know where everyone lives, but I live here, and that sounds like real life to me.

But books like The Hunger Games or Divergent can be read in many ways. These two were complete page turners. I read them both in a couple days because they had action, love, struggle, and wonderful characterization. The language is simple, yet the ideas are complex. You can read a book like Divergent for fun, because it is indeed, fun to read. It plays like a movie in your head as the words go by. But most adults would also read it as a piece of literature. We read literature to learn: we should learn about ourselves and our world. If you look at all movies and books at literal, face value and determine that they are merely "good" or "bad" or "violent" or "immoral" you are missing the entire point of reading a book or watching a film. We need to be able to look at literature as it interests us as an individual or it doesn't. Just because I hate a book and can't get through it, doesn't mean that I believe it's not worth reading! All books are really worth reading if you can have fun reading them and learn a little about yourself or your world along the way.

So, try these two page-turners from this hot new YA author, Veronica Roth. Which faction will you be?

Friday, August 17, 2012

Gold by Chris Cleave

Well, the Olympics have come and gone for another four years, and my family and I enjoyed them immensely. Four two solid weeks, the cheers of "USA!" and "Go, Lochte! Jeah!" could be heard ringing throughout my house, as we were mesmerized once again by the amazing feats of the USA swim team and the Fierce Five. But one sport that I never would have taken the time to watch this year except for having read Chris Cleave's newest novel, Gold, also kept me riveted to the screen. The sport is bicycle track racing - a global phenomenon in other countries apparently, and completely exciting as depicted in Cleave's book.

In Gold, two women and one man become friends, lovers, mothers, fathers, Olympians, and enemies all in the name of track cycling. Done in an arena called a Velodrome, these high speed racers risk life and limb on these bikes, racing millimeters from each others' tires, going so fast that they can hardly breathe, the lactic acid building in their bodies to dizzying degrees. I learned so much about sports medicine, training regimens, and race tactics from this book that you would think it was a boring encyclopedia on biking. But no! The story was just as amazing as the real racers I watched in the London Velodrome. The characters were real, sacrificing everything for their sport, their intense love for each other, and the little child who belonged to them all.

What did each of the characters give up to race for the gold in the Olympics? What would you give up? Everything? Nothing? Read Gold, and you may change your mind about your own goals and dreams. Give it a try, and let me know what you think!

The Fallen Angel by Daniel Silva

I can never wait to put the new Daniel Silva on the library shelf - I have to snatch it out of the box and read it myself rght away. I am also not a great series reader, for the most part. I get bored with the same characters and formula after two or three by the same author. But with Silva's Gabriel Allon character, I am never bored. Mr. Allon never disappoints because he is always smart, always secretive, always exotic, and always on the run from someone. A winning combo for a spy if ever there was one.

But Allon is a reluctant spy in The Fallen Angel. He really doesn't want to look at the body of the girl who jumped from great heights in St. Peter's Basilica. He really doesn't want to find out that her death may be tied to underground art theft. He doesn't really want to know that those thefts could really be finanacing terrorist activity in Rome and his homeland of Israel. He is retired after all. All he really wants is to restore paintings and drink wine with his beautiful wife.

So, can his buddies in the Office, Israel's secret service, bring him out of retirement yet again to help with these little problems? Hmmmm. . . You'll have to read to find out. But if you know Gabriel Allon at all, you already know the answer.

I am Forbidden by Anouk Markovits

I am always interested in different faiths, so this book intrigued me very much when we first put it on the shelf. It has not been wildly popular, but I'm here to tell you, it's well worth a read. If you also are interested in learning all you can about strict, ultra conservative religious sects, like the Patmar Jewish enclave depicted in this book, then I Am Forbidden is fascinating reading indeed.

The books begins Transylvania in 1939 with a Jewish boy named Josef who is rescued by a Christian woman after the murder of his parents. Later, Josef helps a young Jewish girl find a family who raises her after her parents are killed also. The books then takes us through their connected lives, to Paris and Manhatten, looking at the choices that faith and circumstance put before them. It's a fascinating story of twists and turns, secrets, and truths.

This book is also a peek into the lives of Fundamentalist Jews that I have not read about in fiction before. The binding choices that women in this community must make in the name of faith was terrifying and sad to me, but to them, that was just life. It's hard to imagine living such a life as a woman in today's society, but I know that there are many who still do. As a woman of faith myself, I do not like to think that I might need to give up my basic rights as a woman simply to love God or to love my husband and family. But I know, that even today, there are prominent men of faith that believe I do have to give up those rights to be faithful and moral. And there are people, both men and women, who follow blindly, thinking it is the right and moral thing to do simply because someone told them it is.

This issue came up just yesterday as I sat eating with my two daughters in a restaurant full of young people. There was a table of high school girls discussing politics near us, and one girl made the comment that she thought it was funny for one prominent politician to post his "moral status" on his website. She said (and I'm paraphrasing here), "Why would he feel the need to do that? Just because those are his morals, why would he think they have to be mine? Like his morals are the only right ones, or what?" All I can say is, "Amen, sister. Amen." 

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

On my refrigerator, I have this hilarous (at least I think it's hilarious) magnet that my cousin gave me.  It has an old-fashioned, 50's era cartoon picture of a wife, holding out a chocolate cake on a tray to her husband and three lovely children. It reads, "She was very near to faking her own death." When I got it, my cousins and I laughed about it for five solid mintues. Perhaps Gillian Flynn has this same magnet and thought it was funny too, and it sparked Gone Girl. Hmmm. It's a theory.

You'll try to come up with your own theories, too, as you read this diary-style psychological thriller. It's  told from both perspectives in a marriage gone awry: Nick, the loving yet flawed and stupid husband, and Amy, the smart,  perfect, "cool" girl.  They tell the story of their early marriage, giving details that are heart-warming and very "real." The emotions and day-to-day pschological struggles will hit home with most married couples. But then the story grows gradually darker when Amy disappears from her southern home. The door is wide open, the iron is left on, the living room is in disarray. Nick comes home to find this scene and no sign of his loving wife. Where is she? Who has taken her? Why? Where was Nick when it happened? Is everything as it seems? These become the questions the police and Nick himself focus on in the days to come.

The psychological drama that keeps the reader on the edge here is wonderful. I won't give away what's behind Amy's sudden disappearance, but I will say it's fascinating, darkly humorous at times, and ultimately suspenseful. Give this book a try and see which character you most identify with. I dare you.

Bossypants by Tina Fey

There is not much to say about this brilliant memoir except this: I laughed my pants off!

Tina Fey is a study in how one woman can take all the characteristics that others (mostly men) find fault with(quirkiness, a dry sense of humor, forward thinking, sassiness) and turn them into not only a relevant, prosperous, empowering career, but into a life story that should help other women see themselves better. Fey talks about her early days at Second City and her rise to fame on Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock. She talks about her collaboration with Lorne Michaels, and her friendship and respect for Alec Baldwin and Tracy Jordan. In between these fascinating stories, she gives women some funny, yet real and practical advice about how to get ahead in a man's world and realizing both your potential and your dreams in the process.

But most of all, this book made me laugh. It made me laugh and laugh and laugh. I read it in the space of two days, and during those two days, my daughters kept saying to me, "Mom, really? Stop it, it can't be that funny!" But yes, it can. When I was done, I handed it to my husband and said, "If you want to know what I really think is funny, here it is."  So, if you love 30 Rock as much as I do, you'll love this light, quick read.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Healing by Jonathan O'Dell

Women's empowerment is a theme that I love in literature, and The Healing is a beautiful mix of strong women characters, historical themes, and lyrical writing style that I'll cherish and remember.

The book is about a slave girl named Grenada, although that is not her given name. That name remains a mystery to her because she is taken from her mother and claimed by the plantation mistress after the master and mistress lose their own daughter to disease. Grenada is then brought up as a "house" slave, enjoying her status and wearing the dead girl's fancy clothes for the mistress. But when the entire plantation's slave population begins dying of the "black tongue," the master seeks help in the form of a "healer" slave named Polly Shine. When Polly sees Grenada for the first time, she knows the girl has the gift of healing also, and tells the master that Grenada must train with her. Grenada hates leaving her comfortable life in the house, but as the days go on, and Polly heals the sick, Grenada starts to believe in her own power and the power of the love that Polly gives her.

Told from Grenada's point of view both as a girl and as an old woman, the reader is drawn into this story of love, loss, and the spiritual power of healing, through birth, life, and death. While the message in the book of taking the power over our lives instead of waiting for it to be given to us is told through the historical context of slavery, it is a message that is relevant in many of our lives today. The idea that power can be obtained simply by doing for others is also a wonderful thing to hold with us as we move ahead in our own lives. So, give The Healing a try this summer. You'll be glad you did.

The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin

So, to keep on my young adult kick, I thought I'd try this one on the recommendation of one of my wonderful teen volunteers at the library. I was very glad I listened to her, because The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer is a treat you won't want to miss.

Mara finds herself in the hospital with no clue how she got there. When she learns that she is the only survivor of a terrible accident and that three of her friends were killed, a load of grief and a pile of questions fill her mind. As she struggles to recover from the trauma to her body and mind, she starts seeing her dead friends as though they were real. Her mother worries so much about her recovery, that her parents decide it would be best to move and have a new start, with a new school, and new friends. Mara doesn't fight this, but she does fight the idea that she's just gone crazy. She knows something else is up.

When she begins to have visions of gruesome scenes that eventually happen, she enlists the help of an unlikely boy named Noah. Noah is the handsome, popular, ladies' man at Mara's new school, but he is mysteriously drawn to Mara and truly seems to want to help her with her unusual problem. The uncertainty of her feelings, her special brand of "crazy", and her guilt about the accident drive her to solve the mysteries surrounding her friends' deaths.

This gripping tale of teen love, tragedy, and again, something just a bit supernatural kept me entranced from start to finish. I can't wait of the next Mara Dyer installment coming soon!

Fracture by Megan Miranda

The world of Young Adult fiction is so thrilling right now, and Megan Miranda's Fracture is a wonderful addition. With a fresh, psychological premise, real, relatable teen characters and just enough of the "supernatural" to keep the fantasy crowd reading, this debut novel is one I would recommend as a great summer read for anyone.

In Fracture, Delaney Maxwell must recover from a drowning accident in which she is submerged for 11 minutes. In those minutes until her best friend Decker pulls her out of the water, her heart stops beating and her life changes forever. Because when she wakes up, she eventually realizes that she is being drawn to people who are dying; she can tell that death is near. Her dilemma then becomes whether this is a good thing or a bad one. Is it a gift because she could possibly save someone from tragedy, or is it a curse because interference in the natural order of things can create more havoc in life? Delany thinks she finds an ally in a boy named Troy Varga, who has had the same ability to sense death. But who will deal with this gift/curse in the better way? Who will be saved or put in jeopardy?

You'll have to read this page-turner yourself to find out. And what about poor Decker? Hmmm. Another mystery to solve.

The Expats by Chris Pavone

Okay, women out there: you think you're trying to have it all with a job, kids, and a husband. Try adding being an international spy on top of that. That's just what Kate Moore in The Expats did for many years, until she decided she wanted out. The questions of "Can we have it all?" and "Who can I really trust" are taken to new and exciting heights in this thrilling debut novel by Chris Pavone.

Kate is just trying to settle into her new "non-spy" life after leaving the CIA, trying to take care of her children, do the laundry, and arrange play dates, when suddenly her loving husband comes home and wants them to move to Luxembourg where there is an exciting and lucrative job prospect for him in his computer security business. Kate, while somewhat suspicious, can't seem to find a reason to say no. So now she has suddenly become one of the "expat" moms who spends their time learning a new language, muddling through grocery shopping, and making new friends. It is one such couple of "friends" that put out warning signs to Kate's "spy radar" and test her loyalty to everything she holds dear.

The Expats is a wonderful breath of fresh air in the spy/thriller genre. The characters are very real, the plot nice and twisty, and the setting foreign and exciting. Don't miss this new debut. I hope we hear a lot more from Pavone in the future.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Room by Emma Donoghue

     A couple of people in the Valley Book Club suggested this book to me, and its central idea was very intriguing, so I gave it a try.  From the first chapter, I became totally engrossed, fascinated by the little boy who tells the story and by his love of a place he knows only as "Room."
     Jack, the narrator, is a five-year-old boy who lives with his "Ma" in Room. He has never known any other world because he has never left Room - it and his Ma are the whole world. They are the world because Jack and his Ma are prisoners, kept hidden and enslaved by a man they call Old Nick, who abducted Ma when she when was 19.
     You would expect such a story to be almost impossible to read because of its horror and brutality, right? But because of the secure little world that Ma has painstakingly created in Room for Jack, it is just not that kind of story. She makes Room seem normal so that Jack can stay with her and live a life free from the kind of fear and abuse that she herself lives with when Old Nick comes to "visit" her at night. She creates a structured day for him and teaches him what she can, like how to read and count and measure and all the names of things, which become like real, human names to Jack. His lamp is called Lamp and a wall is Wall.  She teaches him about hygiene because if they get sick, they're on their own. But most of all, she teaches him about a love so strong, that even Old Nick cannot touch it.
     Okay, now comes the spoiler alert. If you already love this premise and don't want to know anything else, stop reading here. But eventually, Jack and his mother find a way to escape Room, and the rest of the novel is about surviving Outside. How does a woman who has been a sexual slave and prisoner for seven years go back to life in the world as a daughter, a mother, and a friend? How can she cope with those who have the unmitigated gaul to criticize her parenting skills?  How does a boy who has never seen grass or a tree and thinks that those things only live inside the TV deal with relatives, playgrounds, media attention, and the biggest of horrors - the mall?
     Is this a happy, happy, everyone survives and all is great in the end story? Not really. But amid the horror and struggle is enough humor, strength, and beyond all, love, that it is a story you will not be able to put down or walk away from. Jack and Ma are characters you will remember for a lifetime. And that's a lifetime that from now on, I will be more grateful for.

The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman

     Every time I head to the beach (which is never quite often enough), I need an Alice Hoffman book to take me away from it all. Her stories are mesmerizing works of fiction filled with engrossing detail and usually some kind of spiritual element that ties all the threads together. I hadn't read this one yet, and I became totally lost in the intertwining stories.
     The book is like a continuing history and beginning of a small town in Massachusetts, the founder of which is a woman with undeniable spunk who is afraid of nothing but the prospect of not surviving the brutal wilderness she finds herself in. From her and her stock come the citizens of Blackwell, where bears roam freely in the woods and people survive family secrets, doomed loves, war, unjustified rumors, and an enthralling list of other obstacles. These stories weave together into the history of a place that, in the end, seems mystical and somewhat magical, but that could be any small town in America.
     If you have never read a Hoffman novel, you need to give one a try. You'll be transported, if not on a beach day, then any day you choose.

The Postmistress by Sarah Blake

     The Postmistress is a story of war: the one at home in America where citizens of quiet, little towns go on with life until the war peeks in. It's also the story of war abroad, where violence and destruction are a daily occurence, one that citizens deal with and learn from or somehow make fit into their lives. It is also an infinitely interesting character study of people who live on both sides of this impossible scenario.
     Iris James is the postmistress in Franklin, Massachusetts, and as such she is practical, orderly, prompt, and a stickler for detail. But when love comes her way from both a personal direction and in the form of a Franklin couple torn apart by war, her unfailing order comes crashing down, and she must decide between right and wrong, love and duty.
     Frankie Bard is a news reporter for Edward R. Murrow in a war-torn London where she must tell the story of the war while dodging not only bombs, but the harsh limits of the media censors. She is terrified both of what is happening to the world and of not telling the story completely. When the paths of Iris and Frankie finally collide, both must make a choice about what is really necessary to stop a world from breaking apart.
     The Postmistess has intrigue, love, war, secrets, and characters that are real enough to make the reader feel they are there with them, struggling to survive. It has beautiful detail and a style of writing that creates an interesting world that is easy to get lost in. In short, it has everything a good novel should have. So, give it a try and let me know what you think of Iris and Frankie's final decision. Did they make the right one?

Saturday, March 10, 2012

I have been waiting for this third book in the Child 44 series for a long time. I don' t really know what is so captivating about these books about a disillusioned secret service agent in Cold War Russia, but it's probably a combination of the great characters and this part of  history that is so little used in fiction today.

In this one, Leo Demidov must let go of his family. His wife Raisa is asked, as a teacher, to take their two adopted daughters to America for a propaganda/publicity tour, and Leo is not allowed to leave the country because of his former job with the secret service. But unbeknownst to her parents (big surprise from a teenager) their oldest, Zoya, has become involved with a Russian officer who convinced her to become involved in a dangerous propaganda plot.

There isn't a lot more that I can tell about the story without giving away the shocking turning point for Leo. Leo's life, for the most part, has not been his own throughout the books. It has been mercilessly manipulated by the government and his own, very lowly, ideals for himself. But it is his character, loving yet hard, weak yet intelligent, that makes the reader want him to win in something, whether it be war, or love, happiness, or simple safety. He is a mess, just like his Russia, and we want to save him from it.

So, take a shot at rooting for Leo through the twists and turns of his life. You won't be sorry.

The Spy Who Jumped Off the Screen by Thomas Caplan

Movie stars, espionage, nuclear weapons, love triangles - what more do you need in a spy thriller, I ask you? Nothing. And Thomas Caplan delivers them all in a nice glossy package in The Spy who Jumped Off the Screen.

Ty Hunter used to be an average looking, patriotic, dangerous, covert operative for the American government. But an one mission left him with a new, surgically enhanced face and a desire to be in the movies, where his good looks and macho nature paid off for him, making him a big star. But his expert spy skills are equally handy when the FBI comes looking for him to help them take down two nuclear arms dealers, Ian Santal and Phillip Frost, who travel in sophisticated circles. Ty uses his acting plus all of his cool spy skills to help the government catch the bad guys. But is his pursuit of  Frost's lovely fiance, Isabella, part of the act? You'll have to read to find out!

This was a fun yet sophistocated thriller with lots of twists, great characters, and a timely plot that, along with Bill Clinton's plug at the beginning, will make readers think about nuclear proliferation more closely.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

How would you feel and act if your worst sin were painted on your face for the rest of your life for all the world to see at a glance? Would such a thing deter sinning? This is the time-honored yet timely premise behind When She Woke by Hillary Jordan, which has been called a modern retelling of Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic, The Scarlet Letter.

Hannah Payne (yes, pretty close to Hester Pryne and some of the parallels in the book may be a bit too close) is in love. But her love is forbidden by the ultra-conservative Christian society that is her America. She is in love with a minister and has become pregnant. She chooses to have an abortion, although it is illegal and she is putting herself, her abortionist, and others in danger. When her crime is found out, she is sentenced to "chroming" which means because she has committed murder in the eyes of the law, her skin will be dyed a dark red so that everyone who sees her will know her crime (other crimes are dealt with in different colors). She must return to a clinic periodically to update this dying process to stay red, and if she does not, she will "frag" out and die. Hannah feels terrible about her abortion, as she still deeply loves the minister, but she also loves God and wants to return to Him. Her struggle lies in how she will survive in a society that can outwardly see her crime and thus, is prejudiced against her. How, if ever, can she return to God who she feels has forgotten her because of the radical Christians who try to reprogram her and in the end, abuse her?

My fascination with this story began a long time ago. In high school, thanks to my perfectly wonderful and brillliant English teacher Mrs. S, a couple girlfriends and I became just a little obsessed with The Scarlet Letter. Weird, yes, but the storyline of an ostrasized woman, a captivating illegitimate child, and a handsome, untouchable priest were just too intriguing. Throw in the movie version with a young, handsome John Heard and you've got a teenager's reading dream. Jordan takes this basic storyline and truly makes it both her own and our own by testing the reader's ability to imagine a not-too-far future and using some issues that are critical in American society today.

In Hawthorne's time, his book was controversial obviously because of the love affair with a priest and the resulting illegitimate child. Perhaps those are still very much controversial issues to some. But in this "futuristic" tale by Jordan, we're no longer looking at the issue of the child, but the issues of abortion and crime an punishment. As I said in my last review of The Confession, I do not believe in debating issues that fall into the "morality" category. But I ask you as a reader, if you choose to delve into this what I would call important book for our time, that you don't judge quickly the issues that have been debated for centuries, but stop and really think about them. Tear them apart with your mind and ask yourself questions beyond what you consider "moral." I challenge you to think about what America was and is, what it was meant to be for all people, for this is a very American story.

In a review, you should always give your opinion of the book, so here is mine. I think Hillary Jordan is brilliant and her book could not have come about at a better time. I believe it is an important book for women and for all who seek spirituality and healing. While hitting some very controversial issues that will make many readers squirm uncomfortably in their easy chairs, it holds a vision of God and spirituality that should also give hope in the face of any dispair. I found the character Simone's version of God to be particulary thought provoking and well-written. I believe that sometimes we all see moral issues as black and white and shut out people who think differently than ourselves.  But to do so means we are not sufficiently looking at our history or our present to see what can happen to societies that do so.

That said, it is my hope that no matter how you feel about the issues presented in this fictional story, if you choose to read the book, you will read it for the same reason you would read any other book - to learn. From all literature we should be able to learn either something about ourselves or something about others, but hopefully both of those at the same time. Enjoy!

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Confession by John Grisham

When I was a high school English teacher and would teach the kids how to write a persuasive essay or how to debate, I would always tell them to stay away from issues that were based solely in morality and/or religious beliefs. To me, these issues were not effectively debatable - there would always be good points on both sides, with no clear winner.  Capital punishment, to me, is one of those issues, but Grisham does an interesting job of covering it in his novel, The Confession.

In almost every Grisham novel, there is a lawyer. In this book, that lawyer is Robbie Flak. Then, there has to be a crime. That crime this time is the rape and murder of a high school cheerleader named Nicole Yarber. Then there must be a murderer, and this is where it gets tricky. There is an African American boy named Donte' who has been convicted of the crime after a seemingly coerced confession. There was no other real evidence other than that confession, which Donte' recanted because later he realized that no one was going to figure out the real truth, his last ditch hope after he was mercilessly bullied into signing the confession. Now enter the real killer, a convicted rapist named Travis Boyette (am I wrong or has Grisham used this last name in another novel?)who has had a pang of guilt as he suffers from a brain tumor. He finds a minister to hear him out, and as planned, gets involved in saving Donte' from death by lethal injection.

Is The Confession a twising tale that keeps you reading? Yes. An interesting, fictionalized look at the death penalty? Maybe. Contain wonderfully, deep characters different from any of Grisham's others? Nah.  Does the novel make you think about the virtues or moral pitfalls of the death penality in America today? It certainly did for me. It made me ask myself the question: If even one innocent man could die this way, is it worth it to get rid of all the other terrible criminals that seem beyond "redeption?" And another: "How do we decide which rapist, which murderer, which crime is worthy of such a punishment?" So, to sum it up fo me, it was a very good read but contains a lot of stereotyped characters that are a bit blah in my opinion. Robbie Flak, while superbly likable, was not very realistic to me. The others characters sort followed that same path.

Does the novel give an answer to these time-worn questions? Of course not. Because as I said, the death penality is a moral issue,one comtemplated only in the realms of religion or faith, not politics, in my opinion. And that's the only opinion of mine worth mentioning here.

I can't wait to get to the book club discussion we will have on this book in February. Come join us, or if you're not near Elgin, please make a comment!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

This was our January Valley Book Club selection, and I think everyone in the club would say they thoroughly enjoyed it. It tells of the long-time love and hardships of two people, one Chinese and one Japanese, both during the time right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and in the present day.

Henry Lee was born Chinese in America to a domineering, old-fashioned father and a helpless, traditonal mother. Keiko Okabe was born Japanese in America to parents who spoke only English and cherished their new country. Henry and Keiko become friends, and then more than friends, during their time at an all-white school. When all of the Janpanese are forced to move and live in "relocation camps" and Keiko is one of them, Henry struggles with his love of family, his love of country, and his undying first love of Keiko.

Will circumstances tear them apart or pull them together? This is the question that drives this powerful story home. While the book is a bit on the sticky sweet side for me, it was a quick, enjoyable read that led to some excellent discussion about the war and our nation's prejudices, both in the past and today. Check it out, and let me know what YOU think!

I apologize for being so behind on posting. So, it's been a little while since I read this beautiful historical piece by one of my favorite authors, Alice Hoffman. 

Based on historical events in 70 C.E., The Dovekeepers is the story of four extraordinary women who much fight against their circumstaces to survive after escaping different kinds of persecution only to come together in a place called Masada. This place is a stronghold that evenually comes under seige by the Romans.  Their loves, secrets, and perseverance in the wake of much adversity makes this tale a remarkable work about the strength of women.

If you enjoyed books like my favorites, The Red Tent by Anita Diamont or Pope Joan by Donna Cross, then you will love The Dovekeepers.

Sarah's Key by Tatiana deSosnay

This historical novel has been on book club reading lists all over the country, and I was so excited to have it on our list. The beautiful writing and intertwing historical stories make it easy to see why readers everywhere are talking about this book.

The present day story is about an American journalist in Paris who, through her research, discovers that her own apartment used to be the home of a Jewish family who were involved in the French "round-up" of Jews during WWII. In this particular family were a young girl named Sarah and her even youger brother named Michel.

It is Sarah's heartbreaking and unbelievable story that drives Julia not only to find out the truth and remind the public of past atrocities, but also to find her true self-as a wife and a mother.

For me this book hit home and made me think about many issues in our lives today - from motherhood in middle age to how we often compromise our values and ethics in order to protect a way of life. The tragedy of Sarah's life is a hard thing to read and contemplate when we know that although the story is fiction, the context was absolutely real. I hope hat the old adage is true: that by learning from the past, we can prevent it from happening again.Check this one out for a thought-provoking, enjoyable read.