Category Archives: fiction

Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

edugyanHalf-Blood Blues

Esi Edugyan

321 pages // Published in 2011 by Picador

Audio version: 11 hours and 9 minutes

Narrated by Kyle Riley

Chip told us not to go out. Said, don’t you boys tempt the devil. But it been one brawl of a night, I tell you, all of us still reeling from the rot . . .

It’s the 1930s and The Hot-Time Swingers, a jazz band of young Americans and Germans, are at the peak of their success. When the Nazis come into power and the band’s activities are drastically restricted, most of them flee Berlin to Paris. Soon, the Nazis are in Paris too and the band’s talented young leader, Hieronymus “The Kid” Falk, is taken into custody and never seen again. Only Sid Griffiths, another band member, knows what really happened. When a mysterious letter is sent from The Kid to another band member, it’s time for Sid to confront the past and any part he may have played in Hieronymus’ disappearance. Traveling back and forth between Germany as it was in the 1930s and as it is now, the story of The Hot-Time Swingers unfolds.

I can’t believe I waited so long to read and listen to Half-Blood Blues. I watched as this book was nominated for award after award and still didn’t pick it up. I also read some positive and not-so-positive reviews on this. Some of the reviews I read talked about the dialect used in the book. I think any dialect can be hard to read so I bought the audio version to listen to. Then I checked out the book from the library to read while listening.

Sid, the book’s narrator, is a black man who’s so light that he can pass for white and often does while in Berlin. Hieronymus is also black, born in German to a white mom and black dad. He’s been an outsider since the day he was born. Along with other American, a Jew, a German or two, this mixed-race band comes together to play jazz as it wasn’t played before in a chaotic time. It’s what brings this group together but it doesn’t necessarily keep them that way.

I really enjoyed this book. Edugyan writes about a time that’s been written about over and over again but gives it a fresh point of view. I love the historical elements mixed into this tale of love, identity, and jealousy. I had no idea that blacks were treated in different ways from each other in Germany during WWII, depending on their citizenship. If you were black and from another country, you might be detained indefinitely. If you were a black person of German descent, your papers were taken and you were considered stateless, no longer a German citizen.

I felt something just give out in my chest, like my lungs was collapsing. I was breathing real fast, real shallow. Sachsenhasuen. Hell. Not one of us had to ask where that was. A jack could live in a windowless pit and still know the word Sachsenhausen.

I had no idea what Sachsenhausen was or the contradictory ways blacks were treated. Edugyan gives readers this gritty vivid look back at the past in a way that made me feel as though I was there.

Kyle Riley was the perfect narrator. He brought this book to life in the way that only a good narrator can. I started listening to the audio before I started the print version and it was Riley’s voice that kept me going. Unfortunately, Half-Blood Blues is Riley’s first (and only) audio book so far. I hope it’s not his last. My rating on both audio and book: 5 out of 5 stars.

Book Review: Going in Circles by Pamela Ribon

ribonGoing in Circles

Pamela Ribon

336 pages

Published in 2010 by Downtown Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster

Source: Public Library but you can bet your sweet ass that I’m buying a copy

Two weeks ago, I was trolling around Oprah’s website (I have no idea why) when I came across Pamela Ribon’s essay, “How Roller Derby Can Save Your Life”.

I didn’t join a roller derby league in order to survive my divorce. Looking back, I don’t know how I ever thought one had nothing to do with the other.

After reading those first lines, I had to keep reading. In the essay, Ribons talks about roller derby and how the contact sport got her focusing on other things besides the problems she was going through. When she described her latest novel, Going in Circles as “Eat, Pray, Shove”, I knew I needed to read it since I’ve always wanted to grab a pair of skates and learn how to play roller derby.

In Going in Circles, Charlotte Goodman has just left her husband of several months. Hurt and still in disbelief, she tries to distance herself from the pain but it isn’t working. Everyone around Charlotte is asking her to make a decision. Is her going to stay with Matthew or divorce him? As time goes by, Charlotte still hasn’t made a decision and the people in her life are getting tired of her self-pity. When her coworker Francesca introduces Charlotte to roller derby, there’s finally an outlet for her to get out of her own head. Will she ever make the decision to stay in her marriage or finally become single again?

Going in Circles lived up to my expectations and surpassed them. Charlotte’s reaction to everything that’s going on around her is realistic and often hilarious. She’s scared, confused, and forced to wear a mouth guard because she’s been grinding her teeth so badly because of all the stress. She has to see a psychologist and is trying to be distraught enough for her health insurance to pay for therapy but not so much where she ends up institutionalized.

When Charlotte is introduced to roller derby, I started turning the pages even faster. The author explains the sport in detail but it’s never boring or drags down the story.  I love how Charlotte eventually finds herself through the sport.

This book is chick lit at its best. I found Going in Circles to be a perfect weekend read. I can’t wait to read Ribon’s previous books. My rating: 5 out of 5.

Short Children’s Book Reviews: We March by Shane W. Evans and I Have a Dream by Kadir Nelson

evans we marchWe March

Shane W. Evans

32 pages

Published in 2012 by Roaring Brook Press

Source: Public Library

In We March, author Shane W. Evans take readers to August 28, 1963, the day that Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. Readers follow a family of four as they start their day to get ready to march until they hear Dr. King’s speech. Evans’ writing is simple with just a few words on each page. The book is plain enough that young readers can read it to themselves but why the march and the speech itself is important will have to be put in context by adults so kids can understand it. I found this book to be a great introduction for younger readers. My rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

nelson kingI Have a Dream: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Paintings by Kadir Nelson

40 pages

Published in 2012 by Schwartz & Wade Books

Source: Public Library

Lord, I love Kadir Nelson’s paintings. He’s one of my favorite illustrators and is easily one of the most talented artists working on children’s books. His paintings are so good that you want to buy two copies of his work: one book to read and the other book to cut the pages out to hang on your walls.  Nelson takes Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and illustrates it. The result is a beautiful book that readers old and young will want to read. At the end of the book, Nelson adds the speech in its entirety. The book also comes with a CD recording of the speech as it was delivered in 1963 by Dr. King.  My rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

Short Review: Lies, Knives, and Girls in Red Dresses by Ron Koertge

Lies, Knives, and Girls in Red Dresses

Written by Ron Koertge

Illustrated by Andrea Dezsö

Published in 2012 by Candlewick Press

Source: Public Library

Genre: YA and up

 

I don’t see, but I know things.

Nature does that sometimes – curses and blesses,

takes away and gives. I’m blind but I see.

-          from “Thumbelina, The Mole’s Story”

I love fairy tale retellings.  Earlier this year it seems like retellings were the only things I was reading. In Lies, Knives, and Girls in Red Dresses, Ron Koertge retells some of the most popular fairy tales in free prose giving them a facelift.

The cleverness of some of Koertge’s stories reminds me of why I like retellings so much. A good retelling gives readers an old story in a fresh way. The Ever After for Cinderella’s stepsisters was sober reading while the modern-day story of Red Riding Hood in what I imagine to be a Valley-Girl voice was hilarious. This book also reminded me that not every retelling works. There were some retellings that missed the mark for me. Not every retelling needs to be clever or funny but it needs to add something or what’s the point?

I picked Lies, Knives, and Girls in Red Dresses up because it was recently listed as a Publisher Weekly Best of 2012 book. While I’m glad I read it, I don’t feel the need to buy my own copy. My rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

Banned Book Review: The Giver by Lois Lowry

The Giver

Lois Lowry

180 pages

Republished in 2008 by Houghton Mifflin Company

Source: Public Library

It was almost December, and Jonas was beginning to be frightened. No. Wrong word, Jonas thought. Frightened meant that deep, sickening feeling of something terrible about to happen. . .

I had to review this book for Banned Books Week. The Giver is a book that I’ve read as a seventh-grader and loved. It’s one of those books that I push on my younger sisters, who are now seventh graders, in the way that only a crazed bookworm can. I haven’t read The Giver since middle school, so when I picked it up; I wondered if I would love it as much as I once did.

Within the first few paragraphs, readers realize that Jonas’s world is very different from our own. An airplane flies over the community Jonas lives in, frightening not only the young boy but every person around. Airplanes aren’t a part of their everyday lives. But then, things like choosing your spouse or occupation aren’t a part of that life either.

When Jonas turns twelve he, like all the other twelve year-olds, learns what their occupation will be for the rest of their lives. But Jonas is different. Instead of being chosen to be an engineer or teacher, he learns that he’s been selected to become the next Receiver of Memory. It’s a job of high honor but little power. Jonas is to receive the memories of others who lived generations ago. That way, those memories aren’t a burden to the rest of the community and no one else needs to experience anything but the most ordinary life. During his training, Jonas learns of war and love, happiness and hope. But can Jonas go back to living his life as it once was without these things?

I’m glad to say that The Giver is just as powerful to me now as it was when I was twelve. I was surprised about how much of this book came back to as I read. After Jonas receives the memory of war and sees his friends playing it as game, he freaks out. Of course his friends have no idea what war is but Jonas does, and it sinks in how there’s so much this group will never know. Lowry’s writing is simple and the story gives readers just enough details to understand Jonas and the community he lives in. I can’t wait to read the last three books in this series.

The Giver is #23 on the American Library Association’s (ALA) list of Banned and Challenged Books of 2000-2009. The book has been challenged (someone has asked it to be removed from library shelves) or banned several times since its publication. It’s always been by parents who don’t like the ambiguous ending or the community’s method of dealing with troubled people, the elderly, and infants who aren’t thriving.

If you haven’t read The Giver, I think you should. My rating: 5 out of 5.

Review: Lucretia and the Kroons by Victor Lavalle

Lucretia and the Kroons: A Novella

Victor Lavalle

99 pages

Published in July 2012 by Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House

Source: Publisher

Most twelve-year-olds don’t know much about death, and that’s the way it should be. But a handful get the knowledge too soon. You can see it in their eyes, a sliver of sorrow floating in the iris, visible even at the happiest of times. Those kids have encountered that enemy, too soon and will always bear its scars. . .

Lucretia and the Kroons is a frightening story about the power of friendship and love between two young girls. Lucretia, known as Loonie, has just turned twelve and wishes she could celebrate with her best friend, Sunny. Sunny’s suffering from cancer so her treatments, along with her frail health, have kept the girls apart for months. When Loonie is finally able to see Sonny, tragedy strikes and it will take everything that Loonie is made of to bring her friend back from the grips of death.

I find it amazing what Victor Lavalle has managed to do with less than a hundred pages. During the first few pages of Lucretia and the Kroons, you would think this is just a normal story about kids. The novella is set in present-day New York City in an old apartment building.  Loonie has just finished celebrating her twelfth birthday with three girls that she really don’t care for, wishing that Sunny was there instead. When Loonie’s older brother, Louis, tells her the story of the Kroons, a family of drug addicts that lived two stories above, and used to snatch children or worse, slowly the horror rolls in and readers learn that there is so much hidden behind this façade of normalcy. But isn’t that what great horror shows us? Peel back even a few layers of the everyday world and underneath is something almost unrecognizable.

The Kroons are a frightful bunch who lives between the world of the living and a sort of urban purgatory. Loonie’s battle with them to find Sonny and bring her back is fantastical and eye-opening. I love how Loonie is a child. She only has a child’s knowledge of the world around her and readers see that there’s so much she doesn’t know. Loonie isn’t like some of the kids I’ve been reading about in other books where they’re basically adults in child form.

My only problem with this book is the ending. Lavalle should have deleted one of the last paragraphs. It’s supposed to be a bridge to his latest book, The Devil in Silver, but it feels more like an afterthought.

Even with the less-than-awesome ending, I highly recommend Lucretia and the Kroons. My rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

There’s an excellent short post about how Victor Lavelle got the idea for the book on Everyday eBook. You should check it out.

This review is part of the week-long celebration called A More Diverse Universe. To read other reviews, click here.

DNF review: The Secret Book of Frida Kahlo by F.G. Haghenbeck

The Secret Book of Frida Kahlo

F.G. Haghenbeck

Translated from Spanish by Achy Obejas

368 pages

Published in September 2012 by Atria, an imprint of Simon and Schuster

Source: Publisher

            “Frida, if what you want is to show your respect, then you should make me an offering every year. I’ll gladly delight in the foods, flowers, and gifts you bring me. But I’m warning you now: you will always wish you’d died today. And I will remind you of this every day of your life.”

According to the author, Frida Kahlo owned a journal called The Hierba Santa Book. It was a small book that contained recipes for offerings on the Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muetros).  After Kahlo’s death, the book was supposed to go on display at a museum but disappeared and hasn’t been found since. Creepy, right? The Secret Book of Frida Kahlo is the author’s reimagining Kahlo’s life, and how the artist came about filling the book with her recipes and thoughts.

I have to admit that I love reading about women who’ve lived incredible lives. Georgia O’Keefe, Ida B. Wells, Jane Goodall. . . it doesn’t matter. I’ve already read a few articles and Frida Kahlo’s diary, so when I heard about Atria Books giving away copies of F.G. Haghenbeck’s latest book, The Secret Life of Frida Kahlo, I had to sign up. Unfortunately, the book didn’t live up to my expectations.

One of the biggest things that work for this book is the magic realism element. Throughout the book, Kahlo has encounters with the Messenger, a helper of Death, ghosts, and Godmother Death herself. These encounters are believable. I was never tired of these encounters because they were believable, even when they seem a bit surreal.

What I did get tired of was Kahlo’s constant obsession with her husband, the muralist Diego Rivera. I know Kahlo and Rivera had a crazy marriage filled with affairs and even divorced and remarried but what I didn’t expect was the book to be mostly about Kahlo’s fixation on her husband. Once Kahlo marries Rivera, the book was about her suffering because of Rivera and his cheating ways. The book has so much angst; I could have mistaken it for YA. It became apparent to me that this wasn’t the book I was looking for when I reached page 200 and realized that the author mentioned Kahlo creating art about three times. This is a woman who’s famous for her paintings and style. Three times?

It made me wonder if the situation was reversed, would an author−any author−write a novel about Diego Rivera and mostly write about his chaotic marriage with Frida instead of his work? I doubt it.

I did like the effort that Haghenbeck puts into the book. At the back of the book, readers can find recipes inspired by Kahlo that the author created, but it wasn’t enough to keep me reading.

The story of the Kahlo’s missing book has so much potential but it wasn’t fulfilled in The Secret Book of Frida Kahlo. My rating: 3 out of 5.

Sunday Salon: A More Diverse Universe Reading Pool and Suggestions

I know that there’s a ton of blogging events that are going on in September but I wanted to remind everyone that the deadline to sign up for Aarti’s blog tour, A More Diverse Universe is coming up. September 12th , which is this Wednesday, is the last day to sign up. There’s almost 70 bloggers signed up for the event and I just want to say thank you for doing so. But maybe there are a few people who are having a hard time coming up with a fantasy book that they want to read by a person of color. That’s understandable. I don’t read much fantasy myself and I had to really search my tbr piles, virtual and not, along with several reading lists to come up with a reading pool. Aarti posted a list of suggested reads earlier last week and I thought I should do the same but also share which books I might read. If you’re thinking about joining, I hope this list helps.

Novels

Blindness by José Saramago. I’m probably the only person who would put this book in the fantasy category so I might be crossing the line just a little.  But seriously?  This book is just too good to pass up. In Blindness, over a matter of months, the citizens of an unnamed country go blind. At first, people think it’s an epidemic that will surely go away until the blind outnumber those with sight. What happens next is chaotic, maddening, and at times, beautiful. If you want to read fantasy that doesn’t include witches or dragons, I recommend Blindness.  Saramago’s writing is so good that it wasn’t surprising to find out that the Portuguese writer won the Nobel Prize in Literature soon after the publication of this book.

Note: After reading Ana’s comment below, I’ve decided to just recommend this book for the R.I.P. Challenge instead of both the tour and challenge.

Half World by Hiromi Goto. This book was first brought to my attention by the lovely M of Buried in Print. Half World is one of her favorite books and she recommended to me wholeheartedly. The book’s protagonist, Melanie, is an outsider. She’s poor, has no friends, and lives with her sickly mother. When her mother disappears, it’s up to Melanie to find her and bring her back to our world. I’ve just started reading this a few days ago. It’s a novel with very unusual characters.

Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith by Gina B. Nahai. If fantasy had a chick-lit sub-genre, this book would be on the list. I first read this book years ago and I can still remember images of it like the streets of Tehran and Roxanna, a character who sprouted wings one fateful night and flew out of her daughter’s life. If I owned a copy of this, it would sit next to Chocolat and Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate. This isn’t a book about food but it’s such a feel-good book that it reminds me of the previous two.

Short reads: Short stories and Novellas

Maybe you’re swamped with blog obligations, memes, and the like so you don’t have a lot of time to squeeze in one more novel. I’ve found a few stories that I’ve really enjoyed and you can read in less than an hour.

Lucretia and the Kroons by Victor Lavalle. I read this novella about the friendship between two young girls, one of whom is dying, a few weeks ago. No review yet.  Lucretia knows that Lily is sick but she hopes that one day her friend will get better. When Lily goes missing, it’s up to Lucretia to bring her back from the underworld. Lavalle takes less than a hundred pages and gives readers a sweet story about childhood friendships, love, and death. Note: this book is only available as an e-book and it’s priced at $ 0.99 at most ebook retailers.

“Pishaach” by Sweta Marayan. This story was featured in Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling’s The Beastly Bride, an anthology of stories about shape-shifters. When her grandmother disappears, only Shruti knows her secret: that her grandmother is a shape-shifter who went back to her own world. Shruti is an outsider among her own family and longs to be with her grandmother. But will Shruti ever get the chance to? This story was nominated for the Nebula Award in 2010. Also featured in the anthology is Hiromi Goto’s  short story, “The Hikikomori”.

Collected Stories by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Marquez is one of those writers whose stories are anthologized so much that you can’t help but run into his stories. If you only read one story from this collection, make it “The Very Old Man with Enormous Wings”. It’s a story about a small village that discovers a man with enormous wings and what happens once he’s there. You could probably find this story posted online.

Graphic Novels

So maybe you don’t have time to read a full novel or you’re not a short story kind of person. There’s still hope. Here are four graphic novels you could try.

Ichiro by Ryan Izanama. You know how you read a book and then you’re basically a disciple afterwards, harassing asking people to read it, telling them how awesome it is? Ichiro is that book for me this year. Ichiro is the story of a young boy who’s obsessed with war. His father, a soldier, recently died in Iraq, and Ichiro’s clings to his father’s army things. It’s only after a move to Japan from New York that Ichiro learns about the country’s history. But it’s during a fateful encounter with several Shinto gods and a shape-shifting fox, that Ichiro realizes maybe war isn’t as simple as he thought.

Chew by John Layman and Rob Guillory. 2011 was the year that I wanted everyone to read Chew, though I knew it’s not for anyone with a weak stomach. Detective Tony Chu is a cibopathic, a person who gets psychic (and very graphic) impressions from the food he’s eating. If Tony eats one bite of a hamburger, he can tell you where each ingredient came from and even the type of life the animal lived.  When Tony finds a human finger in his dinner, he goes on the hunt for a murderer and his secret is leaked. Now Tony’s working for the government and has to deal with Russian spies, double agents, and cyborg co-workers. Did I mention that Tony lives in a time where owning and eating chickens is illegal?

Bayou series by Jeremy Love. I’m going to describe this book in the same way that I’ve always described it. Bayou is an amazing Southern Alice in Wonderland. Unlike Alice, readers are plunged into Southern folklore and characters like Brier Rabbit. It’s a dark and fantastic read.

Shaun Tan. Noticed that I didn’t put any titles in front of Tan’s name? That’s because pretty much everything by Tan is perfect for this blog tour. But if you want me to, I’ll give you the names of a few titles that I really enjoyed: Tales from Outer Suburbia, The Arrival, and Lost & Found. I’m not going to tell you what they’re about because it doesn’t matter. They’re all good. I do have to warn you though, if you buy a book by Tan, you need to buy two copies. One copy is to read and the other to tear out the pages and frame them for your walls. Seriously.

I hope this post helps you find something to read for the blog tour or even Carl’s R.I.P. Challenge. If you’re joining the blog tour or the challenge, what will you be reading?

Orange Prize Book Review: The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna

The Memory of Love

Aminatta Forna

445 pages

Published in 2010 by Grove Press, an imprint of Grove/Atlantic

Source: My personal library

And when he wakes from dreaming of her, is it not the same for him? The hollowness in his chest, the tense yearning, the loneliness he braces against every morning until he can immerse himself in work and forget. Not love. Something else, something with a power that endures. Not love, but a memory of love.

Elias Cole is dying. The former dean of a university, Cole has survived and even thrived during Sierra Leone’s civil war. Now it’s decades later and as a much older man, Cole wants someone else to know how he succeeded when others faltered. Adrian is a young British psychologist who’s in Sierra Leone as a volunteer. Kai is a talented surgeon who’s witnessed more than most people his age. What brings these three men together is the memory of the past, of what they’ve lost and what’s left to be gained.

I should warn you: The Memory of Love is one of those books that you should read with a friend because once you’re finished with it, you’re going to need to talk to someone about it.

Forna does a magnificent job of giving readers beautiful writing, a very realistic story, and also the history of Sierra Leone. Before reading this book, I knew very little about the country’s civil war. I just knew that there had been a war and like most wars, mass casualties. The author gives readers history without turning it into a lecture. There aren’t gory details but the illustration of the psychological effects from it all.

‘I was doorman here,’ he adds. ‘Before.’ He says it as others do, in a way that conveys a sense of timelessness. Before. There was before. And there is now. And in between a dreamless void.

I found myself becoming invested in not only the main characters, but the people they tried to help.  I wonder if Sierra Leone and its people could ever recover psychologically from all that it has been through, and what the future holds for it.

The Memory of Love, a haunting story of betrayal, love, and the possibility of hope, is not a book to miss. My rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

Shortlisted for the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction

Review: No Crystal Stair by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson

No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller

Written by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, artwork by R. Gregory Christie

192 pages

Published in 2012 by Carolrhoda Lab, an imprint of Carolrhoda Books

Source: Public Library

I think there’s been a war on independent bookstores. It’s a crime because books are more than just books in the African American community. Literacy and education were once the hopes for getting away from slavery, out of the ghetto, into power. Bookstores have been cultural crossroads, information centers. The bookstore is where we meet, where we talk. In the sixties, in Harlem, at 125th Street and Seventh, it was Lewis Michaux’s bookstore.  –Poet Nikki Giovanni

No Crystal Stair is a celebration, a celebration of the written word and one man’s dedication to it. As avid readers, we know how life-changing and earth-shattering the affect that reading can have on our lives. In Harlem during the 1930s, Lewis Michaux asked a banker for a $500 loan but was turned down. According to the banker, “black people don’t read”. Determined, Michaux started his bookstore with five books and a cart. He would walk up and down the street, shouting about the books he was selling. Over three decades, those five books turned into more than 200,000 at Michaux’s National Memorial African Bookstore. The bookstore became a place for people to meet, talk, and educate themselves. Through the years, famous people were spotted browsing through the store like Zora Neale Hurston, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, and others. Told through interviews, photos, and documents, No Crystal Stair is the fictional account of the life of Lewis Michaux.

When it comes to telling you how I feel about this book, I’m almost speechless. If it wasn’t for the author deciding to spent years writing Michaux’s story, I probably wouldn’t have ever heard of this man and his influential bookstore.

We are in a time where indie bookstores are closing all over the country and it’s becoming harder to find a neighborhood bookish spot to patron. It was a similar atmosphere in 1930s Harlem when Michaux got the idea of starting his bookstore. Though at the time, there was a huge population in Harlem, there wasn’t a bookstore (or any mention of one in the book). Michaux believed that for people to understand the world around them, reading was the answer. He went up against so many people who didn’t believe in the power of reading or that Michaux would make any money. And at first, they were right. For the first several years, he didn’t make any money. He washed windows and did odd jobs around the neighborhood.

Finally, business finally picked up and people came in droves to buy books. If customers couldn’t afford a book, they were free to read it in the back. To Michaux, knowledge was power and it was important for everyone to have the opportunity to read books by and about people that looked just like them.

There are details missing about Michaux’s beginnings like what year he was born in or exactly when was his bookstore started, so Nelson turned this biography into a fictional account. But she did give readers photos and newspaper clippings from that time along with transcripts from interviews with people who knew Michaux best.

I’m so grateful that Nelson, who is the great-niece of Michaux, decided to write her great-uncle’s story.  I’m also grateful to the publisher, Carolrhoda Lab, for taking a chance on this subject and publishing No Crystal Stair. If you like reading about books, or always dreamed of owning your own bookstore, this is the book for you. My rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

Review: The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

The Long Earth
Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
352 pages
Published in June 2012 by Harper, an imprint of Harper Collins
Genre: Science Fiction/Fantasy
Source: Publisher

Step Day. Fifteen years ago. Joshua had been just thirteen.
Later, everybody remembered where they were on Step Day. Mostly they were in the shit.

What would you do if you knew that there’s more than one Earth? That there are millions of Earths and you could just “step” from one world to another and start over? Would you? Would you leave your career behind? What about your family? That’s what authors Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter explore in their collaboration, The Long Earth.

It’s Step Day on Earth and all hell is about to break loose. The instructions to build a small box called a stepper are all over the internet and kids are racing to make their own. But what no one knows is the purpose of this small box. That is, until kids start disappearing. They’re reappearing in another world where chaos is ensuing. Joshua Valienté is one of those kids but in the midst of it all, he’s keeping calm and helping everyone get back. Fast forward fifteen years and stepping is a way of life. People are leaving Datum Earth (Earth as we know it), in droves to start over and explore what the other Earths have to offer. The possibilities are endless or are they?

I decided to read The Long Earth because I read and enjoyed Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters earlier this year. Pratchett and his Discworld series are pretty popular in the blogisphere. When I heard that The Long Earth was being published, I decided to hold out on reading more books from the series and read this instead. I have to say that I made a good decision.

There is so much going on in this book, that if I were to share it all with you, this review would be a page or two long. Seriously. But that isn’t a bad thing. I think it’s good for readers to go into this book not knowing much about the story.

There’s so much for the authors to explain about these different worlds and the pair do an excellent job with world building. Every Earth is different from the others but they all have one rule: iron and other metals won’t pass from Datum Earth to the other worlds. So people are finding themselves having to start over. Some Earths are going through an Ice Age while others are hot and balmy, and also one that’s covered entirely in water. There are weird creatures, nicknamed trolls, whose singing is so beautiful you will stop everything to hear them, and elves who kill for sport. Another similar thing found on each world is that there are no humans.

Pratchett and Baxter go to lengths to illustrate how society might change if people are able to make new lives elsewhere. In the story, the poor and those who are no longer willing to be chained to their careers, leave Datum Earth without a second glance. Their absence hurts economies and empty cities. The rich find their fortunes dwindling but are unwilling to start over again in a new world. Those who are unable to step find themselves in heartbreaking situations, as they are left behind by family and friends. I thought the changes in society were believable even though I wanted to know more about the people who weren’t exploring.

What I didn’t like about the book is that for the first 100 pages, readers are introduced to countless characters. There’s just so much going on. You get attached to one character and the next thing you know, you’re being introduced to another character. There’s this constant back and forth. I almost put the book down for good but I was curious about where the story was leading to. After the first 100 pages, not as many new characters are being introduced and the plot picks up.

Another thing I should mention is that a lot of the book consists of exploring other worlds. I found myself pretty interested in that aspect but I think some people will find the pacing slow. From the cliffhanger ending, I expect this to be the first book in a series.

It’s not a perfect read, but I definitely recommend The Long Earth. If you like quirky stories, robots, parallel worlds, or weird creatures, this is your book. My rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

Review: The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

The Language of Flowers

Vanessa Diffenbaugh

335 pages

Published in 2012 by Ballantine Books, a Random House imprint

Source: Publisher

For eight years I dreamed of fire. Trees ignited as I passed them; oceans burned. The sugary smoke settled in my hair as I slept, the scent like a cloud left on my pillow as I rose. Even so, the moment my mattress started to burn, I bolted awake. The sharp, chemical smell was nothing like a hazy syrup of my dreams; the two were as different as Carolina and Indian jasmine, separation and attachment. They could not be confused.

Ever since she was abandoned at birth, Victoria Jones has been a ward of the state of California. Shuffled from one foster home to another, Victoria hasn’t found a home or a family to call her own. Life seems to change when she’s ten and is in the care of Elizabeth. The two are alike in many ways with no one to call family but each other. Nothing lasts forever; tragedy soon strikes and the two are separated. Now, Victoria is 18 and has aged out of the foster care system. She has no money, no job, and no place to live. All she has is the skills that Elizabeth taught her so long ago: the language of flowers, the Victorian notion that every flower has a meaning. But will this be enough to help Victoria lead a successful life and become a person who can love others?

This year, my reading has involved people and places that I normally don’t read about. With The Language of Flowers, I realized that I haven’t read many books that dealt with kids in the foster care system. It’s a system has taken a toll on Victoria. Readers learn about the many homes she’s been in from the foster dad who locks a young Victoria out of the house on a winter night to the foster mom who refuses to feed Victoria anything but frozen peas to teach her that “food isn’t comfort”. It’s heartbreaking as Diffenbaugh goes back and forth between Victoria’s past and present to show us how she became the person she is.

This isn’t just a story about heartbreak but possibilities. Redemption is possible even though it’s often pointed out though the book, that many of the kids who age out of the foster care system don’t get a happy ending. My rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Review: Chopsticks by Jessica Anthony and Rodrigo Corral

Chopsticks

Jessica Anthony and Rodrigo Corral

272 Pages

Published in February 2012 by Razorhill books, an imprint of Penguin Group

Source: Library

Gloria “Glory” Fleming is a world-famous pianist, who sells out concert halls all over the world. She’s also only seventeen. Her days are filled with practice as demanded by her father, Victor. It’s all she knows until Francisco Mendoza moves in next door. Now Glory’s world is filled with not only music but art, late-night movies, and text messages. She’s finally becoming a normal teenager. After a while, Glory falters because of her father’s demands and is unable to play anything but the song “Chopsticks”. Everything is not what it seems and when Glory disappears, it’s time for everyone –Victor and readers – to figure out what really happened in Glory’s life.

I picked up Chopsticks because I heard a lot of positive things about it on Twitter. The bloggers, who have read it, didn’t say much about it except that more people should read it. After reading this book, I understand so I won’t tell you much about the plot. Chopsticks  is a love story but also a mystery. The mystery isn’t easy to solve, which I love, so you’ll probably have to read it twice. But it is a fast read.  If you’re a reader who shies away from YA because of melodramatic teenage angst, there’s none of that in this book. Readers of all ages can enjoy.

Jessica Anthony and Rodrigo Corral give this unusual teenage story a great format. It’s told through not only words but also postcards, text messages, newspaper articles, piano recital programs, and more. The format reminds me a lot of The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt. I was left wondering what kind of novel I should call this. Is it right to call it a graphic novel? I called Frankie Pratt a “scrapbook novel” but Chopsticks doesn’t fit that description. Maybe it should be called a “novel in collage”? Either way, I would love to see the authors write more novels in this new format.

If you’re looking for a great read in a unusual format, Chopsticks is your book. My rating: 4 out of 5.

Spring Reading Thing 2012

March 20, 2012 – June 20, 2012

Hosted at Callapidder Days

If you didn’t know that today was the first day of spring, you wouldn’t be able to tell by looking out my window. It’s nice and cold outside, perfect winter weather. So it seems a little funny to be making a list of books I want to read for spring. I missed last year’s Spring Reading Thing, a seasonal “challenge”, and I refuse to miss it again this year.

I decided to dedicate this year’s SRT to my many stacks of unread books. This idea came to me yesterday after “finding” an under-bed shoe storage filled with books. I think that’s one of the great things about Spring Reading Thing is that participants are encouraged to make goals. It’s not just the amount of books to read but anything else you can think of.

One of my goals is to read at least fifteen of my own books within the next three months. It doesn’t have to be the fifteen books on this list but it needs to be fifteen. I’ve own The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot since its publication in 2009. I even pre-ordered it and still haven’t read it. If I don’t read it by the end of this challenge, I’m going to give it away to my local public library. Which leads me to my second goal:

  • Give away at least ten books by June 20th. If I don’t miss the 30+ books under my bed, I won’t miss the ten that I plan on giving away. I’m thinking of this as my own bookish spring cleaning.

Last but not least is to have at least one read-along with my daughter. She’s ten and hasn’t read The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett yet. It’s been a reading tradition of mine to read it every spring. I already bought her the book and movie version. Now it’s time to read it to her. Maybe I’ll give her a package of seeds to go with it. I think she’ll like that. If the read-along is a success, we can add Natalie Babbit’s Tuck Everlasting in June. It’s one of my favorite summer reads.

My pool of books:

  1. Head Off and Split by Nikki Finney (poetry)
  2. Land to Light On by Dionne Brand (poetry)
  3. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver (non-fiction)
  4. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (non-fiction)
  5. Feathers by Jacqueline Woodson (middle grade)
  6. The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna
  7. A Mercy by Toni Morrison
  8. Hate that Cat by Sharon Creech (poetry)
  9. The Humming Room by Ellen Potter (middle grade)
  10. Sula by Toni Morrison
  11. Alcestis by Katharine Beutner
  12. What Looks Like Crazy on An Ordinary Day by Pearl Cleage
  13. No Regrets Parenting by Harley A. Rotbart (non-fiction)
  14. The Street Sweeper by Elliot Perlman
  15. Among Others by Jo Walton (young adult)
  16. The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier
  17. Wonder by R.J. Pollacio (middle grade)
  18. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (young adult)
  19. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (middle grade)
  20. Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith (middle grade)
  21. The Rock and the River by Kekla Magoon (middle grade)
  22. Cousins by Virginia Hamilton (middle grade)
  23. An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor (non-fiction)

So that’s what I’m planning this spring. Have you started thinking about your spring reading? Are you joining Spring Reading Thing this year?

Review: The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt

The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt: A Novel in Pictures

Caroline Preston

240 pages

Publication Date: October 25, 2011

Publisher: Ecco

Source: Publisher

 

When Candace over at Beth Fish Reads featured Caroline Preston’s The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt, I knew this was a book for me. I love journaling and art so reading a book that’s told in pictures though in a new format, sounded too good to pass up.

It’s 1920 and Frankie Pratt is an eighteen-year old girl who dreams of being a writer. After her high school graduation, she’s given her father’s typewriter and a scrapbook as a way to realize her dream. Frankie would love to attend Vassar but on her widowed mother’s salary as a home nurse, there’s just no way that will happen. Fortunately for Frankie, her situation changes and her new life begin.

The subtitle, A Novel in Pictures, is a perfect fit. Frankie’s story is told with ephemera from the 1920s. Though it fits my definition of a graphic novel (pictures + words), I wouldn’t describe the book in that manner. The author coined Frankie Pratt, a “scrapbook novel” and I think that’s the perfect term for this new format. Preston does such a fantastic job at matching pictures with Frankie’s life that I wondered what came first, Frankie’s story or the pictures. Not only that but while reading this, I didn’t feel like there was pieces missing to the story or that I had to fill in the blank spaces. Readers get enough of everything for this book to be a satisfying read.

Being that this is the 1920s, there’s mention of famous people and places of that time like Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, and the bookstore Shakespeare & Co. I thought it was all interesting and the story kept me rooting for Frankie all the way until the end.

After reading The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt, I was happy to find out that Preston is currently working on her next scrapbook novel.

Here’s an excerpt that I found on NPR about poet Edna St. Vincent Millay’s visit to Vassar while Frankie was a student there. Click on the pictures to enlarge.

  

Thoughts on The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow

The Girl Who Fell From the Sky

Heidi W. Durrow

256 pages

Publication Year: 2010

Publisher: Algonquin

Source: Bought it

 

It’s a funny thing to think about: moving toward extinction. And I think of how maybe I’m already extinct in a strange way – there’s no way to make another me: at least I can’t do it. But that doesn’t matter anyway because I never want to have kids.

The Girl Who Fell From The Sky is the debut novel from Heidi W. Durrow. It’s also the winner of the Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, which was founded by Barbara Kingsolver.

The story tells the life of Rachel, the only survivor of tragic, mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of her three siblings and their mother. Rachel is also biracial, the daughter of a white Danish mother and African-American father. After the death of her family members, Rachel is sent to live with her paternal grandmother and has to learn how to navigate in a country where she’s considered black, something she didn’t think much about before. Told from the perspective of Rachel, her mother Nella, and those who knew their family, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky is an engaging read of one girl’s struggle to live after the death of those she loved most.

This year I’m learning a lot about my reading. I’ve learned that I don’t read many books that feature:

  • the elderly as protagonists
  • mother-daughter relationships
  • bi-racial characters

Where have I been? In today’s society with so many people being of several races and cultures, I can’t believe I’ve ignored this. Luckily reading this book brought it to my attention. As a young girl, not only does Rachel has to deal with everything that has happened, she also has to learn how to deal with so much attention to both who she is physically, her long fuzzy hair that makes girls in her class want to fight her, blue eyes, and light brown skin to who she is as a person, someone who loves to read and tries to understand what being black means in America during the 1980s.

The problem is that as interesting and engaging as the book was, I didn’t connect very well to Rachel. Readers understand this character through her words and interactions with others but it wasn’t enough.

I had the same problem with Rachel’s mother, Nella. Nella is a young Danish woman living in Europe when she meets Roger, an African-American man stationed at a nearby base. They soon marry and have children before Nella leaves Roger and flees to the United States with their children. She struggles with everything before she finally makes a terrifying decision.  I wish there was more pages dedicated to this fierce woman.

 *spoiler spoiler spoiler 

I need to understand her decision with the same depth that I understood a similar decision in Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

*spoiler over

Though I didn’t get the connection I needed, I still think this was an excellent read. My rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Graphic Novel Mini-reviews: Anya’s Ghost, Cinderella, and Hera

Anya’s Ghost

Vera Brosgol

224 pages

Publication Year: 2011

Publisher: FirstSecond Books

Source: Won it.

Anya Borzakovskaya is your typical teenager: she would rather be anywhere else instead of school or church, her mother embarrasses her, and she thinks no one understands her. One day while ditching school, Anya falls down an old well and meets Emily Reilly, the ghost whose bones lie at the bottom of the well for the past ninety years. Anya may have thought her life was dull before, but after meeting Emily, things will never be the same again.

Any adult who reads this book remembers what it’s like to be a teenager who doesn’t fit in. As the daughter of a Russian immigrant, Anya does all that she can to fit in better with her peers: learns English, loses her accent, smokes, and ditches school. What Anya forgets is that being yourself is better than fitting in any day.

Anya’s Ghost is a book that was perfect for the R.I.P. Challenge and this autumn weather. The black/white/purple illustrations blend well with the content of this story. I love how Brosgol starts this story off so simple and normal before the creepiness of Emily the ghost inches slowly through the storyline, scaring both Anya and the reader. Anya’s Ghost is a book that’s great for middle school readers and their parents alike. My rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Cinderella: From Fabletown with Love

Chris Roberson and Shawn McManus

114 pages

Publication Year: 2010

Publisher: Vertigo

Source: Public Library

I’ve been a reader of Bill Willingham’s Fables series for years, so when I saw that there was a spin-off of the series featuring Cinderella, it was a no-brainer for me to read this.

 Though many in Fabletown think Cinderella is just some dumb blonde who spends as much money as she can, she’s really a super spy who sabotages Fabletown’s enemies at every turn. When someone starts smuggling magical items from the Homelands into the real world, it’s up to Cinderella and Aladdin to put a stop to it.

Cinderella is a character that you don’t see much of in the Fables series, so giving her a spin-off was a great idea. She’s smart, not scared to get in a fight, and has some baggage of her own to deal with. The writers did a great job with keeping the same style as the Fables series while giving readers something different.  My rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Hera: The Goddess and Her Glory

George O’Connor

80 pages

Publication Year: 2011

Publisher: FirstSecond Books

Source: Public Library

Author George O’Connor is on fire with his Olympians series. The first two books in the series were Zeus and Athena. Hera is the third volume. The problem with dedicating a whole book to Hera, the Greek goddess whose story is intertwined with the infidelities of Zeus and the hero Hercules, is that not much of her story is hers. There’s not a lot known about the goddess outside of her role of wife which is the reason why most of Hera is about Hercules and Zeus. Hera: The Goddess and Her Glory was a great read but not finding out more about the goddess left me disappointed. My rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

Review: The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

The Joy Luck Club

Amy Tan

288 pages

Publication Year: 1989

Publisher: Vintage

Source: Public Library

And I think now that fate is shaped half by expectations, half by inattention. But somehow, when you lose something you love, faith takes over. You have to pay attention to what you lost. You have to undo the expectation.

The Joy Luck Club is the story of four mothers, Chinese-born women who migrated to the United States, and their American-born daughters. The book focuses on the women’s childhoods, loves, heartbreaks, and their relationships with each other.

The novel begins after the recent death of Suyuan Woo. Her daughter, June, is asked to replace her in the Joy Luck Club, a group of long-time friends who often meet up to play Mah-Jong, among other things. As honored as she is, June doesn’t know if she can take her mother’s place. June and Suyuan’s relationship was filled with love but also misunderstandings and doubts. June is a woman who’s given up on her talents and potential at a young age while her mother always saw the potential especially when her daughter didn’t.

I had always assumed we had an unspoken understanding about these things; that she didn’t really mean I was a failure, and I really meant I would try to respect her opinions more. But listening to Auntie Lin tonight reminds me once again: My mother and I never really understood one another. We translated each other’s meanings and I seemed to hear less than what she said, while my mother heard more.

June and Suyuan’s problems aren’t unique, though they feel that way. Every mother-and-daughter pair in the group has the same problems.  They were women who came from two very different cultures and had a bridge to cross in order to understand and appreciate each other. With every pair it was as if the mother understood her daughter, but the daughter felt as if her mother was a puzzle.

I can remember countless times as a teenager when I felt like my mother and I were speaking two different languages. Now as a mother, I wonder how much of what I say to my daughter will be remembered and in what way.  I think that’s part of timelessness of this book. Mother-daughter issues are going to be around as long as human beings are here. It’s something most women can relate to. Though The Joy Luck Club was first published in 1988, it’s not dated. It reaches across age and culture to give readers a satisfying story.

As sad as I was to let these characters go, I’m glad that I’ve finally read this brilliant book. My rating: 5 out of 5.

Review: The Homecoming of Samuel Lake by Jenny Wingfield

The Homecoming of Samuel Lake

Jenny Wingfield

352 pages

Publication Date: July 12, 2011

Publisher: Random House

Source: Publisher

John Moses couldn’t have chosen a worse day, or a worse way to die, if he’d planned it for a lifetime. Which was possible. He was contrary as a mule. It was the weekend of the Moses family reunion, and everything was perfect−or at least perfectly normal−until John went and ruined it.

The Homecoming of Samuel Lake starts out with the patriarch of the Moses family but luckily for all of the book’s readers, it doesn’t end there. Every year on the first Sunday in June, the Moses family hosts their family reunion. Family from all over come back home to Columbia County, Arkansas including Willadee Lake, John’s only daughter and favorite child. Willadee married a traveling preacher, Samuel Lake, and now can only visit Arkansas once a year. But when tragedy strikes and Samuel loses his parish back in Louisiana, the Lakes are forced to stay in Arkansas longer than they counted on. But what happens next is an amazing story of love, faith, and joy that affects not only the Lakes and Moses but the community around them.

Okay so I didn’t really tell you much about The Homecoming of Samuel Lake, did I? Like that Willadee and Samuel have three amazing kids Swan, Bienville, and Noble.  I also didn’t tell you how Willadee’s sister-in-law Bernice is one low woman who’s trying to win back her high school sweetheart which happens to be Samuel? I also didn’t mention that the Moses’ next door neighborhood, Ras, is a villain that I have no problem hating, a man beyond redemption or pity.

So now you know. The Homecoming of Samuel Lake is only the second book (besides 32 Candles) that I stayed up all night and mid-morning to read until I knew what happened to each character. I loved the Moses family, who aren’t perfect but understand what it means to be a family and how loyalty truly works. Samuel Lake is a man who thinks he has somehow lost favor with God and don’t understand why he doesn’t have a parish to preach to. The book deals with faith in a straightforward way that doesn’t preach, which I appreciate.

My only problem with the book is that Bernice didn’t get her just desserts and that I wanted to know more about Willadee’s brother, Toy. Toy is a man who suffers throughout his life and though readers are told a lot about Toy’s past, I wanted to know even more.

The Homecoming of Samuel Lake is a great thick summer read that left me teary in some parts, laughing in others, and ready to hug it at the end. If you love books with Southern settings, you can’t go wrong reading this which is why I’m giving away one copy to a lucky reader. Let me know in the comments if you want to be entered in the contest. I’ll pick a winner in a few days. Good luck.

Goodreads rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Review: 32 Candles by Ernessa T. Carter

32 Candles

Ernessa T. Carter

342 pages

Pub Date: 2012

Publisher: Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins

Source: Publisher

So you’ve probably heard of this thing by now. It’s called life. And it’s hard. Even when it looks easy, it’s hard. That’s pretty much everybody’s situation, and it was mine, too.

On top of the usual business of life, I was ugly.

Up until the age of fifteen, Davidia “Davie” Jones had a pretty hard life. According to everyone (and I mean everyone) in her small Mississippi town she’s ugly. Dark skin, nappy hair that’s rarely comb, and wearing nothing but oversized clothes from the thrift store, Davie couldn’t stand out any more than she already did. So it didn’t help at all that her mother Cora brought home a different man almost every night and lived on a diet of cigarettes, liquor, and sex.  When Davie discovers the Molly Ringwald movie, Sixteen Candles, she decides that she’ll have her own Molly Ringwald ending someday. Until then she takes her life in stride, becoming almost invisible until one day a cruel prank is played on her in high school. The prank makes Davie realize that she can never have her special ending in Mississippi and leaves in the dark of night with just a handful of belongings. After spending years in Los Angeles, the past comes back to haunt Davie and she needs to make her own ending once and for all.

I can’t say enough how much I love this book. I started reading it around 8 p.m. and turned the last page around 2 the next morning. I didn’t even think about sleeping until I knew just how Davie’s life turned out.

Davie is just one of those characters that make readers wish she was real. She’s an outsider looking in on the world around her, sees everyone for who they really are, and accepts them- faults and all.  That doesn’t mean she’s this innocent person – she’s not. And I think that’s a great thing about 32 Candles. Carter shows readers that there’s not one person in this book that doesn’t have bad qualities. From Davie to the secondary characters you see the good and the bad. That’s essentially life. Plus you see how people grow and become better with time, rooting them on.

I wondered if life would always be out of control like this, if I would have to live in fear for the rest of my days, my heart in my throat, my body tensed and braced for what was to come. And most of all, I wondered if I’d always have to force myself to go against instinct and be brave. 

If you’ve ever felt like an outsider, Davie is a character that will leave you feeling like you’re not alone. Highly Recommended.

Review: War and Watermelon by Rich Wallace

War and Watermelon

Rich Wallace

184 pages

Publication Year: 2010

Publisher: Viking Juvenile

Source: Publisher

I look across the pond and see Patty Moriarity and Janet DeMaria hanging out by the refreshment stand. They’re in two-piece bathing suits, but not bikinis. They’re the type of girls that are over our heads. Not at the top of the list of coolest girls, but close to it. We’re pretty much near the bottom of the guys; low-middle at best.

It’s the summer of 1969 and Brody Winslow feels a change in the air. It might be because seventh grade means going to a new school where he’ll only know half the kids there and trying out for the school football team. Those are small changes compared to what his older brother, Ryan, is going through. Ryan will be turning eighteen in a little more than a month which means he’s eligible for the draft. Ryan knows that he doesn’t want to fight in the war that’s going on in Vietnam but he’ll feel like a coward if he takes the easy road and go to college though he’s not ready for it.

When I first start a book, I’m curious to see how the author lays out things like the plot, characters, and language. I wonder if the plot will do something different and/or exciting. I want to see whether the language of the story is interesting and beautiful enough for me to underline passages or dog-ear a page. I’m always hoping the characters are interesting enough to follow. Sadly, War and Watermelon disappointed me with almost all three aspects.

One of the problems with W&W is that it’s written for a pretty specific audience. Brody ends up on the football team of his junior high so there’s a ton of talk about football – a sport that I don’t follow at all. I understand sections of the book have to include the team and games but I found some of those sections uninteresting. I just waited for those parts to be over. I think any reader who doesn’t follow the sport might think so too.

Another thing that I had a problem with is the heavy inclusion of top 10 songs from that time. When done well it’s interesting to know what the protagonist is listening to at the time and makes the reader get to know the time period and characters better. But as someone who wasn’t born until almost twenty years later, I have no idea what any of these songs sound like and I wasn’t curious enough to find out. Towards the end of the book, I just skipped those sections. If I didn’t bother with those sections at the end, would a regular MG reader (ages 10-13) care about those sections?

Those two things would be minor complaints if the book was interesting enough but I found myself wishing I could quit reading after the first ten pages. If this was a book that I picked up at the library or bought it myself, I would have. There wasn’t enough going on to keep me interested in the characters – most of whom show little growth except Ryan. Even though I’m a heavy MG reader, I would have loved it if this book was YA and from the perspective of Ryan who had to figure out what he wanted at such a young age of seventeen.

War and Watermelon isn’t a bad book but it’s a “meh” kind of book, so my Goodreads rating for it is three stars out of five.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for allowing me to review War and Watermelon.

Sunday Salon: Mini-reviews: Stitches, Horoscopes for the Dead, and The Violets of March

I have a confession to make: I read faster than I review. So I have a stack of books sitting on my desk, just waiting to be reviewed. I rather read than write so I’m posting mini-reviews to assuage some of the blogger guilt that I’m feeling.

Horoscopes for the Dead: Poems

Billy Collins

128 pages

April 5, 2011

Publisher: Random House

Source: Library

I picked up Horoscopes for the Dead for several reasons: a) I’m a judge in the poetry selection of the Indie Lit Awards, b) I enjoy poetry, and c) who can ever get enough of Billy Collins? Sadly this newest volume disappoints. Though several of the poems featured are memorable, many weren’t. I even skimmed a few towards the end. I don’t expect every poem Collins writes to be another “Litany” or “Forgetfulness” but damn; I don’t expect every poem he writes to be published either. If you’re someone who doesn’t read poetry often, I would say this book may not be for you though it’s still accessible. If you’re a fan of Collins (I still am), I think you could still enjoy the gems this volume holds. One of my favorite poems in Horoscopes for the Dead was Feedback:

The woman who wrote from Phoenix

after my reading there

to tell me they were still talking about it

just wrote again

to tell me that they had stopped.

The Violets of March

Sarah Jio

304 pages

April 26, 2011

Publisher: Penguin

Source: Publisher

I read The Violets of March last month and I’m still at a loss of what to say about it. The gist: I loved it. The main character is Emily, a writer whose life is a mess: her last book sold millions and now she has a chronic case of writer’s block plus she’s getting a divorce. On a whim, she decides to visit her great-aunt on Bainbridge Island in Washington. While there she discovers a sixty-year-old diary of a woman named Esther whose own life at the time of the diary’s writing was getting even messier than Emily’s by the minute. Emily has no idea who Esther is or what happens to her. The result is a mystery that twists and turns, leaving the reader guessing all the way until the end. I didn’t want this book to end. If you’re looking for a great read this summer, you can’t go wrong with The Violets of March.

Stitches: A Memoir

David Small

329 pages

September 8, 2009

Publisher: W.W. Norton & Co.

Source: Personal Library

I have a tug-of-war relationship with this book. I bought when it was first published in 2009 because the author happens to be one of my favorite children’s book illustrators. I devoured this graphic memoir of Small’s childhood in 1950s Detroit. The author’s father was a radiologist, his mother a stay-at-home mom. His family was a family of silence and secrets. David and his brother had no idea what their parents were ever thinking. The author was a sickly child at a time when the medical profession thought that radiation could cure sinus problems. As a teenager David ended up with a huge cancerous mass on his vocal cords and the resulting surgery rendered him speechless for years. David was an outsider in a family filled with outsiders who acted as though they fit in with the world around them.

So the tug-of-war relationship with this book started the first time I read it. There was so much hype around this book that I had huge expectations and the book disappointed a little. After the first reading I gave this book to my library and ended up buying it back from them because I couldn’t bear for someone else to buy it. What? Yes, I know. It sounds weird but that’s the truth. I read Stitches again for the third time earlier this month and I’ve come to see how good this memoir is. Small’s black-and-white drawings are sparse but powerful. The drawings and words come together to convey this perfect story about childhood and loss, psychological damage and family dysfunction. It’s a pretty perfect graphic novel.

The book trailer of Stitches

Summer reading and looking ahead

Summer is almost here by Leland

Yesterday was the last day of the semester and I can’t tell you how relieved I am. I love the excitement of a new semester with teachers that I usually haven’t had before on classes that I’ve been waiting to take. But the end of a semester brings its own share of excitement: the stacks of books that I can read without interruptions.  For the next four weeks I can read as much as I want while the kids are still in school. After that I can still read a lot but not as much since the kids will be home with me most of the summer.  So I feel a little (just a little) pressure to make every second of this time count.

Last night I started reading Sugar in My Bowl: Real Women Write about Real Sex edited by Erica Jong (June 2011). It’s a collection of essays , short stories, and even a comic from a variety of writers and artists about sex and love and everything that comes along with it. Note: This is not romance. Romance is talked about in the book but don’t think of romance novels or anything of the sort when you think about Sugar in My Bowl. Some of the authors featured in the collection include Rebecca Walker, Eve Ensler, and Julie Klam.  So far the writing is smart and funny. I love Jong’s introduction and how she admitted that most of the authors featured wouldn’t agree to be a part of the collection until their partners said yes. It made me think: would a male writer asked his partner if it was okay to be in a collection about sex?

Review copies

I’m also reading The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey. The novel is about an English couple who have spent decades in Trinidad and their marriage in the midst of the country’s political unrest. It appeared on the Orange Prize for Fiction’s longlist along with Rosie Allison’s The Very Thought of You (July 2011). The Very Thought of You has been on my reading list since the beginning of the year when  Jill from The Magic Lasso shared an article about the book. Set during WWII the book is about a young girl, Anna, who’s  sent to the Yorkshire countryside to live with a childless couple. Anna ends up being a witness to an affair and the consequences of it. The book has received mixed reviews but I can’t wait to read it. The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt is a book that I’ve read only positive things about. I don’t read westerns but if this book is half as good as the hype surrounding it and the cover, I know that I’m going to enjoy it.

From my tbr shelves and lists

I love reading stories by and about women so I’m looking forward to The Secret Lives of Bab Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin, Tillie Olsen’s classic short story collection Tell Me a Riddle, and The Girl who Fell From the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow.

Read-alongs

Have you noticed that some of the best read-alongs are hosted during the summer?Allie over at A Literary Odyssey is hosting a read-along of The Iliad while the lovely Belleza is asking others to join her as she reads Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad that starts May 23rd, which is just a few days away. Atwood is an author that I’m pretty intimdated to read so I think The Penelopiad would be a great start. Of course there’s also my read-along  of Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns which will be going on throughout June. There’s also the Woman Warrior (Maxine Hong Kingston) read-along over at Feminist Classics. It seems like this is a book that everyone read in high school – except me. I plan on changing that.

And last but not least, what would a summer be like without re-reading a few favorite books? I first read Beloved by Toni Morrisonduring last year’s Christmas break and it was easily the best book of 2010. I can’t wait to read it all over again along with American Gods by Neil Gaiman. I plan on giving it a dual reading once again: in print and audio. Every time I even think about this book, I wonder if I should change my major back to anthropology.

So that’s a few books that I’m looking forward to reading over my summer break. What books are you looking forward to tackling this summer?

Review: House Arrest by Ellen Meeropol

House Arrest

Ellen Meeropol

201 pages

Pub. Date: Feb. 1, 2011

Publisher: Red Hen Press

Source: Library

I tried to get out of the assignment. Prenatal visits to a prisoner? Okay, house arrest, same difference. I couldn’t believe that I was supposed to take care of a woman whose child died in a cult ritual. What kind of mother could get so involved in an oddball religion that she’d let her baby freeze to death? And what kind of name was Pippa?

Don’t get me wrong. Every patient deserves expert and compassionate care. Even the most despicable criminal. I learned that in nursing school and I believe it, really. Still, this assignment gave me the creeps.

Emily Klein is a home-care nurse assigned to Pippa Glenning, a twenty-something woman who belongs to a cult that worships the Egyptian goddess Isis.  Pippa’s on house arrest while other members are in jail after her daughter and another toddler die during a worship ceremony. At first it seems like the two women are so different but in fact Emily and Pippa are very alike- running away from their past in hopes of never having to face it. Though the two are strangers to each other Pippa is hoping that Emily will help her escape for a few hours to be a part of the next Solstice ceremony. There’s a lot at stake for Emily if she helps – the loss of her nursing license, her job, family, and the chance of possible prison time. But for some unknown reason, Emily is considering helping Pippa.

At just over 200 pages Meeropol packs a lot into this story of two women. There’s the Klan that haunts Pippa’s childhood, the activist parents of Emily’s past that almost killed a man, the politics behind Pippa’s house arrest and the way the local government deals with the crimes against this cult, a niece with spina bifida and much more. With so much going on in the story you think there would be times that the story would become overdramatic. Instead readers get this absorbing story told in a plain straightforward way.

One of my complaints about this story deals with the main character, Emily. As a child her father was sent to prison for burning down a building. Unknowingly there was a janitor inside who was badly burned and almost lost his life. Emily’s mother was the mastermind behind it but her husband took the full blame. Years later both die – one from guilt and the other from the prison’s lack of medical care. On the island that Emily grew up on, she was an outcast. There weren’t many people-children and adult alike-who would let her forget that her father was in prison. Fast forward to the present and Emily was this woman who could be so immature and naive at times.  When her grandfather dies and she needs to go back to the island of her childhood, she’s pouting almost the whole time. This doesn’t seem like the same woman who’s willing to help someone break the law. When she finally makes her decision on whether or not to help Pippa break the law, I couldn’t figure out what helped her to make her decision.

Even with its faults, I think this is a book I would recommend to others. If you have a few free hours and looking for quick but absorbing read, you couldn’t go wrong with House Arrest.

Review: The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan

David Levithan

The Lover’s Dictionary

211 pages

Publication Date: January 4, 2011

Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

Source: Library

Exacerbate, v

I believe your exact words were: “You’re getting too emotional.”

The Lover’s Dictionary is a book I’ve wanted to read for months before I was finally able to get my hands on it. I first heard about it last year through a few bloggers. I placed it on my TBR list and waited for what felt like forever to get a copy. Luckily my library came through for me.

The book is the story of two unnamed lovers, how they met, and their relationship through the years. Told through dictionary-like entries, The Lover’s Dictionary is really a breath of fresh air from what readers are used to when it comes to novels and  their structures.

There’s so much to enjoy about this book. First there are the little entries that make up this couple’s relationship. At just 211 pages long, the author is able to tell us just enough about this couple to keep us satisfied.  I love how readers don’t get to know their names, ages, or even what they look like. That’s up to our imaginations. In one of the reviews I read about this book, the blogger loved how even the gender of this couple could be questioned. We don’t know really know if this couple is a same-sex or not. I imagined them as a being a guy and a girl because of a fight that’s mentioned in the book.

One of my favorite entries in the book:

Qualm, n

There is no reason to make fun of me for flossing twice a day.

I highly recommend this book. If you haven’t read Nick and Norah’s Playlist which is also another great book written by  Leviathan which he co-authored with Rachel Coh, I suggest you add that to your tbr list too.

Thoughts: Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin

Please Look After Mom
Kyung-Sook Shin
Translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim
256 pages
Publication Date: April 5, 2011
Publisher: Knopf
Source: Bought it
It’s been one week since Mom went missing. . .

Park So-nyo is an elderly woman who’s trailing behind her husband in a crowded Seoul subway station when the two become separated as it’s time to board. It should have been a routine trip to the city from the country but turns into a mysterious disappearance as hours turn into days without Park’s return. What follows is a sometimes lazy, other times desperate search for Mom by her husband and five grown children as they reflect on their lives with her.

Usually when an author uses a second-person narrative, I can’t read past the first page.  I often find this point of view gimmicky and too distracting to become engaged in the book. I think it speaks volumes of not only Shin’s talent as a writer but Chi-Young Kim’s talent as a translator that PLAM doesn’t read this way.

There’s so much that I can say to describe PLAM. I can tell you that it’s about family and motherly love. I can also say that it’s about guilt and the role of mothers in any culture. As a mother, I can tell you that being a mom is one of the most rewarding roles that I have ever had but it’s also the most demanding and hardest. There’s no off-days, no breaks, and you’re “on call” for the rest of your life. Shin expertly illustrates how much women sacrifice for their children without children always being aware of it. Park is the mother who sells her wedding ring so that her child can have what they need and who’s constantly working in the fields to make sure her children have enough food to eat. I’ve read reviews about this book that described Park as a martyr and I think that shows how cynical people have become of mothers. A martyr is someone who accepts their suffering which is the opposite of this character. Park doesn’t accept her suffering but gets through it without harming others.

Shin does a beautiful job exploring the life of Park through the eyes of her family and herself. Readers learn about a woman who was slowly becoming sicker the older she became, who had headaches that were so bad she couldn’t cry when she learned that her only sister died. But readers also learn the roles about the family has played in Park’s disappearance: the husband who was so selfish that he refused to acknowledge the growing pain his wife was in; the daughter who’s also a famous writer and her inability to have a conversation with her mom about the places she travelled; or the son who was his mother’s favorite but never did enough for her.

You don’t understand why it took you so long to realize something so obvious. To you, Mom was always Mom. It never occurred to you that she once taken a first step, or had once been three or twelve or twenty years old. Mom was Mom. She was born as Mom. Until you saw her running to your uncle like that, it hadn’t dawned on you that she was a human being who harbored the exact same feeling you had for your own brothers, and this realization led to the awareness that she, too, had had a childhood. From then on, you sometimes thought of Mom as a child, as a girl, as a young woman, as a newlywed, as a mother who had just given birth to you.

Even with such a selfish family, I carried hope with each turned page that Park would be found. I hoped that her family would have a chance to write the wrongs of the past. I believe good writing does that: it makes you carry hope when there is none, it makes you even despair with characters as though they are real. I glanced through the eyes of these children as they saw their mother as a person not just a role and admitted their wrongs while wishing for a second chance.

Told with  tenderness, Please Look at Mom is a story that will have readers exploring their own relationships with their moms.

This review has been crossed-posted at Color Online.

Review: The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady by Elizabeth Stuckey-French

The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady

Elizabeth Stuckey-French

320 pages

Publisher: Doubleday

Publication Date: February 2011

Source: Publisher

 

By the time Marylou Ahearn finally moved into the little ranch house in Tallahassee, she’d spent countless hours trying to come up with the best way to kill Wilson Spriggs. The only firm decision she’d made, however was that proximity was crucial. You couldn’t kill someone if you lived in a different state. So she flew down from Memphis to Tallahassee and bought a house on the edge of Wilson’s neighborhood.

In her twenties and pregnant with her first child, Marylou Ahearn was unknowingly part of a government experiment to study the effects of radiation. Marylou was one of hundreds of pregnant women who were given radioactive cocktails and told that it was vitamins to keep them healthy. The effects of the cocktails were devastating. Fifty years later and Marylou is finally getting the chance to get revenge on Wilson Spriggs, the doctor in charge of the study. She moves to a different state and the same neighborhood as Spriggs, changes her name, and begins to wreck havoc on the life of Spriggs and his family.

It wasn’t until I was in the middle of the book that I found out that the government study that’s talked about is based on one that really happened in 1940s Tennessee. Hundreds of poor, white, pregnant women were lied to and misled about the cocktails were given. Doctors, nurses, and the government didn’t even think to consider the lives of these women and their unborn children.

The book may sound sad but it’s not. It’s amazing to me how the author was able to take such a serious situation that involves death and revenge and turn it into a hilarious story. Once Marylou moves to Tallahassee where Spriggs and his family are at, she learns that the doctor has Alzheimer’s and is slowly losing his memory. How can you get revenge on your enemy who probably doesn’t even remember what he’s done to you? Marylou decides to get her revenge through his family, a group of oddballs who are dealing with Asperger’s syndrome, menopause, workaholism, and a nuclear breeder reactor. Getting revenge on this family may be harder than she thought.

If you enjoy quirky stories, Southern novels, or just strong female characters, this is a book to pick up.

Review: Someone Else’s Garden by Dipika Rai

Someone Else’s Garden

Dipika Rai

386 pages

Harper Perennial

Source: Publisher

 

“People are defined by what they love and what they hate” starts the story of Lata Bai and her daughter Mamta. Lata Bai lives a life of disappointment. Married to an indentured servant who can’t see a life for himself or his family beyond the farm he has to care for, Lata Bai knows that the only thing she can do is take pleasure in the small things in her life like telling her daughters myths and other stories from her childhood.

At 20 years old and unmarried, Mamta is looked upon by all as being too old for marriage. If she receives any offers of marriage, it wouldn’t matter what her future-husband is like, her father will take it. The author doesn’t shield readers from the harsh lives that mothers and daughters live through. Arraigned marriages are the norm and it’s in a woman’s best interest to produce as many sons as possible or they could be thrown out of their houses so their husbands can get a new wife. It’s not usual for some wives to have fatal cooking “accidents”. Someone’s Else Garden is the story of not just the cruelty of social norms for mothers and daughters but also the love that the two can have for each other.

Rai’s writing is so real that I felt heartbreak when Lata Bai gave Mamta away at her wedding. Often times a mother will never see her daughter again once she’s married. I also felt heartbreak for Mamta who dreamt of having a husband who loves her instead of one who ends up beating her. Rai doesn’t hold back from describing everyday life in rural India but readers are never overwhelmed either.

I think this is an excellent book for readers who want to know more about cultures other than their own. Someone Else’s Garden is a book that took me out of my reading comfort zone and placed me firmly in the shoes of great characters.

Thoughts: The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown

The Weird Sisters

Eleanor Brown

318 pages

Publication Date: January 20, 2011

Publisher: Amy Einhorn

Source: Publisher

 

We came home because we were failures. We wouldn’t admit that, of course, not at first, not to ourselves, and certainly not to anyone else. We said we came home because our mother was ill, because we needed a break, a momentary pause before setting off for the Next Big Thing. But the truth was, we had failed, and rather than let anyone else know, we crafted careful excuses and alibis, and wrapped them around ourselves like a cloak to keep out the cold truth. The first stage: denial.

When I first read this paragraph from Eleanor Brown’s The Weird Sisters, I had to stop and read it again. After reading it the second time, I knew I was in for something different. I was right.

The Weird Sisters is the tale of Cordelia, Bianca, and Rosalind Andreas also known as Cordy, Bean, and Rose. The three sisters grew up in the small college town of Barnwell with their father, a professor of Shakespeare and their mother whose recent diagnosis of breast cancer is the perfect excuse for the girls to tuck in their tails and come back home.

As the oldest sister Rose has never left Barnwell, choosing to stick around in hopes of becoming a tenured professor at the local university though better opportunities are probably awaiting her aboard with her fiancé. Bean, the middle sister, prefers the thrill of New York but after losing her job as well as her dignity, her fantasy has disappeared along with her identity. Youngest sister, Cordy, is their father’s favorite. She’s spent the past ten years traveling around the country, working at dead-end jobs to escape from having to grow up. But something unexpected makes her return home to figure out her life.

The Weird Sisters is about being around the people who know you the best. The people who have seen you at your worst and want you to succeed against all odds even when they doubt you will. Brown has given readers a family that is so authentic that I forgot that they weren’t real. It was a pleasure reading this book, becoming lost in the story of the Andreas sisters and their failures, loves, and triumphs.

This book is the second perfect debut novel that I’ve read this year. If you’re looking for a great light read, The Weird Sisters is the book to pick up. I won’t hesitate to read anything else by Eleanor Brown and you shouldn’t either.

Review: The Night Bookmobile by Audrey Niffenegger

The Night Bookmobile

Audrey Niffenegger

40 pages

Publication Date: September 1, 2010

Publisher: Abrams ComicArt

Source: Library copy

After a fight with her boyfriend, Alexandria is walking the streets of Chicago when she finds a bookmobile and Mr. Openshaw. Mr. Openshaw is the librarian of this particular bookmobile which is housed in an old ratty Winnebago. During her first visit, Alexandria realizes that what’s so special about the bookmobile is that it exclusively houses everything she has ever read: from Pat the Bunny which she read as a child to The Complete Stories of H.G. Wells. Over the years, the bookmobile changes with each visit just as Alexandria changes. Now she’s single and a librarian herself but the real job that she desires is to be a librarian for the bookmobile.

I really enjoyed reading this. The Night Bookmobile contains some beautiful passages about reading and being readers.

Click on pictures to enlarge.

After reading this book I wondered how my own bookmobile would look like, what books would fill the shelves. Just the thought of it makes me want to read more, to fill those shelves with more books. I love the imagery that Niffenegger uses and also the questions she ask. In the afterword the author asks “what is it we desire from the hours, weeks, lifetimes we devote to books? ” Alexandria gave up human companionship for books, looking for something that could only be found between pages. I think for each reader the answer is different.