Showing posts with label family issues. Show all posts
Showing posts with label family issues. Show all posts

Friday, October 7, 2016

The Brady Bunch Gone Bad in Commonwealth by Ann Patchett


Title: Commonwealth
Author: Ann Patchett
Publisher: Harper
Publication Date: September 13, 2016
Source: copy received from TLC Book Tours in exchange for an honest review

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

One Sunday afternoon in Southern California, Bert Cousins shows up at Franny Keating’s christening party uninvited. Before evening falls, he has kissed Franny’s mother, Beverly—thus setting in motion the dissolution of their marriages and the joining of two families.

Spanning five decades, Commonwealth explores how this chance encounter reverberates through the lives of the four parents and six children involved. Spending summers together in Virginia, the Keating and Cousins children forge a lasting bond that is based on a shared disillusionment with their parents and the strange and genuine affection that grows up between them.

When, in her twenties, Franny begins an affair with the legendary author Leon Posen and tells him about her family, the story of her siblings is no longer hers to control. Their childhood becomes the basis for his wildly successful book, ultimately forcing them to come to terms with their losses, their guilt, and the deeply loyal connection they feel for one another.


My Review:

Add it to the "best of 2016" list!  Commonwealth left me enthralled from page 1.  If you've enjoyed Ann Patchett's books in the past (Bel Canto left an impression on me, making her newest novel sound all the more attractive), or if you just love a good family saga, this is your next read.

The family structure here is a bit more complex than "Brady Bunch gone bad," but I couldn't help thinking of America's favorite blended family as I read about the Keating/Cousins kids, who are pretty much the antithesis of the beloved Bradys.  The fateful christening party mentioned in the book's description is the dynamite that blows this family in so many different directions.  Patchett shows you this initial explosion, and then gives you a glimpse of how this affected each member of the family over the subsequent decades.  The story is rich with regrets and guilt that will leave you wondering--what would have happened if Bert and Beverly never met on that first day?  Would it have been for the better, or the worse?

If I had to pick one thing that makes this novel stand out, it's the fluidity as Patchett transitions between characters.  There are SO many family members in the Keating/Cousins clan that it does, admittedly, get confusing at times.  However, this made it all the more impressive that the narrative was able to move from one person to the next without requiring a designated chapter for each character (or even a page break, in many cases).  The story lasts just long enough with each family member that your interest never falters, and you end up with a captivating drama that spans generations.

I can't express enough goodness about this book!  Five stars, must read, go go go.

As always, much thanks to Trish at TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour!

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

1st Review of 2016! Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff


Title: Fates and Furies
Author: Lauren Groff
Publisher: Riverhead
Publication Date: September 15, 2015
Source: borrowed from the good ol' public library

Summary from Goodreads

Every story has two sides. Every relationship has two perspectives. And sometimes, it turns out, the key to a great marriage is not its truths but its secrets. At the core of this rich, expansive, layered novel, Lauren Groff presents the story of one such marriage over the course of twenty-four years.

At age twenty-two, Lotto and Mathilde are tall, glamorous, madly in love, and destined for greatness. A decade later, their marriage is still the envy of their friends, but with an electric thrill we understand that things are even more complicated and remarkable than they have seemed.


My Review:

I know I've mostly been doing mini-reviews lately, but I figured my very first book of the year deserved its own post.  Especially when we're talking about a much-hyped book like Fates and Furies!

I'll say from the outset that, while I did enjoy this novel, I was a bit mystified about all the 5-star reviews and "Best Book of 2015" designations that have been tacked onto it.  There was a lot for me to like about Fates and Furies, but I wouldn't really say I loved it.

Number one reason I was into this book: Groff's ability to create wonderfully complex, nuanced characters.  One thing that struck me about both Lotto and Mathilde is that their physical appearances never became entirely clear for me.  While they both regarded each other as physically gorgeous, other characters in the book often described them as awkward and odd-looking, but still beautiful by way of personality or charisma.  As such, I love that my vision of them was shaped more by their personalities than their actual physical traits.  I think this also spoke volumes about their maturation throughout the book.

While Lotto came across is pretty naive and vain across the board, I was struck by the hidden surprises within Mathilde.  For the first half of the book, she is often in the shadows, and I was looking forward to having her mysterious nature unveiled in part two.  Sure enough, she had a lot of secrets to hide, and I loved the unexpected calculating edge to her character.

That said, I think the book didn't reach "amazing" status for me because there wasn't anything terribly unexpected within its pages.  It is an interesting portrait of a marriage, and certainly includes many quotable passages about the subtleties of married life.  But aside from the uniqueness of the two protagonists, I didn't find anything particularly new here.

Is Fates and Furies worth the read?  Absolutely.  Is it going to be on my favorites list for the year?  Questionable.  But I'm still quite happy with it as my choice for first read of 2016!

What are your thoughts on Fates and Furies?  Read any good relationship dramas lately?

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

December Minis: A Library, A Bazaar, and Earthquakes

Yup, it's that time again.  More mini-reviews!  I am enjoying this format for the time being, and I hope you all are too.

The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins
Crown, 2015
borrowed from the library

While this book doesn't seem to be super widely-known, several bloggers that I love and respect were singing its praises, so I had to check it out.  That said, I was a little nervous, because many reviews mentioned "magical realism" and "fantasy", two genres with which I haven't had much luck.  But, I gave it a go.

Quick synopsis: Carolyn and a dozen other children were "adopted" long ago by the mysterious Father.  Each child was taught one category of Father's knowledge over the years.  Now, it's 20 years later, and Father has disappeared.  Carolyn & co now have to fight to see who has the power (and the knowledge) to take Father's place.

You guys, THIS BOOK IS AMAZING.  Yup, it's full of fantasy and magical realism and things you would never believe in real life, but Hawkins wrote it so well that it DOES NOT MATTER.  It is horrifying and hilarious and mysterious at the same time.  The story unravels in such a way that there is always another piece of information you need, that you can't put down the book for, and as such you will indeed never put down the freaking book.  Full disclosure: I did not love the ending (it was less explosive than the rest of the novel, and as such felt unfitting), but I still recommend it.  Highly.  (As long as you can take some gore.  A lot of gore, actually.)

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King
Scribner, 2015
borrowed from the library

It's been a while since I ran out and read the latest King release, but I knew that a new collection of his short stories was a good excuse to do it.  My love of SK began with his short stories.  Where his novels, while often excellent, can enter the territory of being overly verbose, his short stories are more concise, hitting readers hard and fast right between the eyes.

This collection is no exception.  While not every story worked for me ("The Bone Church" was one--more of a poem, and an odd one at that), I was wow'ed by the majority of them.  I know many people hear Stephen King and immediately think horror, but that is not the overarching theme here.  (Though some are certainly horrific..."Mile 81" comes to mind immediately. Avoid if you're queasy, or if you dislike children in distress.)  Instead, I'd say there is a general sense of unease in each of these stories.  Questions of morality, of good conscience, of what it means to be just.  You are left feeling disturbed, rather than scared.  And if the stories aren't enough, the book is made even more amazing by the notes King has left before the start of each one, giving you the background on what inspired it and how he wrote it.  Is there anything better than a Stephen King introduction?  And now you get 21 of them.  Winner winner, chicken dinner.  A great read for die-hard King fans and newbie SK followers alike.

Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld
Random House, 2013
borrowed from the library
The latest pick for my MOMS Club book club.  Discussion is this Sunday, and I think it's fair to say there'll be a lot to discuss!  Basic premise: Kate and Vi are twins who were born with psychic abilities.  As they get older, Kate distances herself from these "senses", while Vi embraces and hones them over time.  Now in their 30's and living in St. Louis, Vi predicts very publicly that a disastrous earthquake will soon hit the city, throwing Vi, and Kate, into the spotlight.  Kate is forced to reconsider her own abilities, as well as her roles as sister, daughter, wife, and mother.

I am a Sittenfeld fan (Prep and American Wife are truly excellent reads, if you haven't gotten to them already).  That said, the novel started out very slowly for me, and I felt like the narrative was wordy and jumpy for no discernible reason.  Plus, I found Kate to be positively grating.  She's weak, whiny, impulsive, dispassionate, and seems to be just going through the motions in what boils down to a very comfortable life.  (It could also be that I hate the picture she portrays of stay-at-home moms.  She makes us look ridiculous.)

However, Kate finally does something so outrageously stupid that it makes the last quarter of the novel completely un-put-down-able.  I ATE IT UP.  So I'm not sure if I should love this book because I was so entirely enraptured by it for the second half, or if I should dislike it because the protagonist is godawful and it's her ridiculous godawful mistakes that make the second half of the book worth reading.  I don't know.  I guess I need to discuss that at book club.  :)

What did you read so far this month?

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Finding Jake by Bryan Reardon


Title: Finding Jake
Author: Bryan Reardon
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication Date: February 24, 2015
Source: copy received for honest review through TLC Book Tours

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

While his successful wife goes off to her law office each day, Simon Connolly takes care of their kids, Jake and Laney. Now that they are in high school, the angst-ridden father should feel more relaxed, but he doesn't. He’s seen the statistics, read the headlines. And now, his darkest fear is coming true. There has been a shooting at school. 

Simon races to the rendezvous point, where he’s forced to wait. Do they know who did it? How many victims were there? Why did this happen? One by one, parents are led out of the room to reunite with their children. Their numbers dwindle, until Simon is alone.

As his worst nightmare unfolds, and Jake is the only child missing, Simon begins to obsess over the past, searching for answers, for hope, for the memory of the boy he raised, for mistakes he must have made, for the reason everything came to this. Where is Jake? What happened in those final moments? Is it possible he doesn’t really know his son? Or he knows him better than he thought?


My Review:

It was hard for me to go into this novel and not compare it, at least in the beginning, to We Need To Talk About Kevin.  There are some basic similarities: a fiction novel about a school shooting, told from the perspective of a parent of the shooter.  However, Finding Jake quickly dovetailed into its own unique tale, as there were important differences that became apparent early on.  Most importantly, Jake is only a suspected shooter in the killing that takes place, and you spend much of the novel trying to figure out if he was actually involved or not.  Related to that, Jake is not nearly so damaged (demonic?) as Kevin in Lionel Shriver's novel.  These details, paired with the fact that the narrator is Jake's father Simon (a self-critical stay-at-home dad), give you a novel that tells a story unlike any other.

With an event so catastrophic as a school shooting at its core, it's easy to expect that Jake will be the center of this novel's universe.  However, I found that Simon's story was truly the driving force for most of it.  When he realizes that Jake could be a killer, Simon delves into the last 17 years of his parenting to figure out where he could have gone wrong.  Did he socialize Jake enough?  Did he let him hang out with the wrong friends?  As the parent who was primarily responsible for child-rearing for so many years, it's easy to see how Simon would want to overanalyze even the most minute decisions he made as a father through the years.  Did he do the right things for his son?  Does he even truly know him?

I found Simon's perspective to be engaging and relatable--yes, likely because I, too, am an overly-critical-of-myself stay-at-home parent, but even if I wasn't, Reardon writes this character with a clarity that brings Simon's reality to life for any reader.  Simon's job has been his kids for nearly two decades, and now he finds that one of them may have committed a horrible atrocity.  How can he not second guess his entire life as a father?  His journey is heartbreaking, but also intriguing, as his position as a stay-at-home dad (vs. the more common stay-at-home mom) adds a distinctive twist to the narrative.

I do have to note that, as well-developed as Simon's character is, I felt that his wife (Rachel) was given short shrift.  Even though Simon is central to the novel, Rachel's actions are important enough to the story that I should have been able to get a better read on her.  However, I often felt there was a disconnect between her personality and her actions, and was sometimes left scratching my head at why she made certain decisions (at one point, she basically abandons Simon during a fairly critical moment in the book, which based on the knowledge I had of her previously, seemed unfitting).  This is not a huge detractor from the novel, but worth mentioning, as I felt it was quite a contrast from Simon's character.

That detail aside, this book was well worth the read, and I was hooked from page one.  While comparisons to novels like We Need to Talk About Kevin might make you start reading Finding Jake, by the time you finish it, those comparisons will be a distant memory.  This novel has a powerful, emotional story to tell, and a unique perspective from which to tell it.

As always, much thanks to Trish and TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour!
Want to find out more?  Check out the other blogs on this book tour HERE.  And connect with Bryan Reardon on Facebook.


Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Inside the O'Briens by Lisa Genova


Title: Inside the O'Briens
Author: Lisa Genova
Publisher: Gallery
Publication Date: April 7, 2015
Source: ARC received from the publisher via NetGalley for an honest review

Summary from Goodreads

Joe O’Brien is a forty-four-year-old police officer from the Irish Catholic neighborhood of Charlestown, Massachusetts. A devoted husband, proud father of four children in their twenties, and respected officer, Joe begins experiencing bouts of disorganized thinking, uncharacteristic temper outbursts, and strange, involuntary movements. He initially attributes these episodes to the stress of his job, but as these symptoms worsen, he agrees to see a neurologist and is handed a diagnosis that will change his and his family’s lives forever: Huntington’s Disease.

Huntington’s is a lethal neurodegenerative disease with no treatment and no cure. Each of Joe’s four children has a 50 percent chance of inheriting their father’s disease, and a simple blood test can reveal their genetic fate. While watching her potential future in her father’s escalating symptoms, twenty-one-year-old daughter Katie struggles with the questions this test imposes on her young adult life. Does she want to know? What if she’s gene positive? Can she live with the constant anxiety of not knowing?

As Joe’s symptoms worsen and he’s eventually stripped of his badge and more, Joe struggles to maintain hope and a sense of purpose, while Katie and her siblings must find the courage to either live a life “at risk” or learn their fate.


My Review:

I already mentioned a few days ago how much I enjoyed Inside the O'Briens.  If you've read any of Genova's other novels, you know that she does an excellent job of humanizing neurological disorders--bringing them to life through stories of (fictional) families forced to deal with the diseases' consequences in the everyday details of life.  That was certainly the case in this book as well.  Before reading, I already knew the "textbook" definition of Huntington's disease, but Inside the O'Briens opened my eyes to the devastating effects that this condition has not only on the person who has been diagnosed, but on all of their family and friends.

I like that Genova chose someone like Joe O'Brien as a protagonist, as well.  He's kind of a macho guy--police officer, patriarch of a large Irish family, doesn't really wear his emotions on his sleeve, and not real concerned about his health in general.  Not someone who might have coping mechanisms already in place for a disease like Huntington's--much less know what it is.  Watching him navigate his diagnosis, as well as its implications for his family, is heartbreaking.  Genova develops his character with amazing heart.

As much as I liked this book, I did feel that it dragged in some parts.  The narrative jumps back and forth between Joe and his youngest daughter Katie (who is trying to decide if she wants to do genetic testing to reveal if she will eventually get Huntington's).  Both Joe and Katie spend a lot of time wrestling with their internal dialogue.  For Joe, it's figuring out how he will cope with the disease as he gets sicker, and how he can best support his family.  For Katie, it's deciding if she should be tested, and if so, what that means for her future.  While their respective journeys of self-discovery do progress over time, I often felt like they got a bit repetitive and "stuck", debating the same points over and over.  I don't say that to lessen the importance of their struggles, but as a reader, it did slow the plot down quite a bit at times.

That said, the strong emotions and family struggles in this book absolutely outweighed the concerns I had about the slow movement of the plot.  This is an excellent read for anyone with an interest in familial drama, neurological disorders, or who just plain wants a good tug on the heartstrings.

**Lisa Genova is encouraging all readers of her book to donate to the Huntington's Disease Society of America, to further research into treatment and a cure for the disease.  Please check out THIS LINK if you're interested!

Have you read any of Lisa Genova's novels?  Has your life been affected by a family member with a neurodegenerative disorder?

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

And then my heart burst. Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum


Title: Hausfrau
Author: Jill Alexander Essbaum
Publisher: Random House
Publication Date: March 17, 2015
Source: review copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Summary from Goodreads

Anna Benz, an American in her late thirties, lives with her Swiss husband Bruno and their three young children in a postcard-perfect suburb of Zürich. Though she leads a comfortable, well-appointed life, Anna is falling apart inside. Adrift and increasingly unable to connect with the emotionally unavailable Bruno or even with her own thoughts and feelings, Anna tries to rouse herself with new experiences: German language classes, Jungian analysis, and a series of sexual affairs she enters into with an ease that surprises even her. Tensions escalate, and her lies start to spin out of control. Having crossed a moral threshold, Anna will discover where a woman goes when there’s no going back. 

My Review:

I read Hausfrau and now I AM BROKEN INSIDE.

Honestly, I was a bit unsure of this book during the first half.  Hausfrau is getting a ton of buzz right now, and as I jumped into the text, I had to spend some time unraveling Anna's inner turmoil.  At first, I found myself getting rather annoyed with her--what business does she have, cheating on her husband at every turn?  Ignoring her kids in favor of another tryst?  I even was (dare I say it?) bored for a chapter or two as things played out.  (And, I should note (for those who'd like the content warning), they do play out quite graphically.  It got a little 50 Shades of Grey up in there for a while.)  But as the details came together, I began to realize that Anna isn't a stereotypical desperate housewife.  Anna is really and truly depressed.  And this book captures her downward spiral in the most heartbreakingly stunning way.

I think that's the best thing to know going into this book: there is no catch here.  There's no mystery behind Anna's background that's going to explain her actions to you (I kept waiting for some big reveal about her past that didn't happen).  This book is a character study in depression, plain and simple.  And depression doesn't usually have one root cause that can be so quickly explained.

Even though there is no big revelation about Anna along the way, there is a rather significant plot change that occurs in the second half, and this is where my heart basically imploded and I could.not.stop.reading until the very end.  Oh, the sadness, my friends.  I felt so deeply for Anna by the end of this novel.  I don't get real attached to characters in novels most of the time, but I felt emotionally entrenched in her story for sure.

And the ending.  This book could make my favorites list for the year simply because of how well Essbaum wrote the last page.  I won't spoil it for you but just...amazingly poignant.

Do you like character-driven novels?  Do you like to feel all the feels (and I don't even like that phrase), especially the depressingly sad ones?  Then Hausfrau will be the most well-written novel to make you cry in 2015.  HANDS DOWN.

What's the last book that really and truly tugged at your heartstrings?  Made you cry?

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

5 Reasons to Read The Daughter by Jane Shemilt


Title: The Daughter
Author: Jane Shemilt
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication Date: March 3, 2015
Source: copy received for honest review through TLC Book Tours

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

Jenny loves her three teenage children and her husband, Ted, a celebrated neurosurgeon. She loves the way that, as a family, they always know each other's problems and don't keep secrets from each other. 

But when her youngest child, fifteen-year-old Naomi, doesn't come home after her school play and a nationwide search for her begins, secrets previously kept from Jenny are revealed. 

Naomi has vanished, leaving her family broken and her mother desperately searching for answers. But the traces Naomi's left behind reveal a very different girl to the one Jenny thought she'd raised. And the more she looks the more she learns that everyone she trusted has been keeping secrets.

How well does she really know her sons, her husband? How well did she know Naomi? If Jenny is going to find her, she'll have to first uncover the truth about the daughter she thought told her everything.


Let me give you 5 easy reasons to read this book...hopefully you'll like it as much as I did!

1. The setting.  The story takes place in England and Wales, and while much of it is portrayed as rather dreary and melancholy (appropriate to the tone of the book), I was still swept up in the atmosphere that was created.  This was particularly true of the scenes set at Jenny's seaside cottage in Dorset.  Despairing yet beautiful...if that makes sense.

2. The tagline.  I've gone on record with my dismay over books with taglines, but (after having read the book), I'd say this one is pretty spot on.  "How well do you really know your family?"  I spent so much time trying to figure out where Jenny went wrong with her misconceptions of her children (and her husband, too, but mostly her kids).  I mean really, her kids are 100% NOT what she thought they were.  At all.  As a mom myself, that is a moderately terrifying idea, eh?  How can you not know your own kids?  What did Jenny do to get to this low point as a mother?  I was absorbed by her attempts to find out.

3. The red herrings.  Any good thriller needs to throw you off course a few times, but not so many times that it becomes tedious.  The Daughter finds that perfect balance.  There was a bit of time in the middle of the book where I felt like things stalled out (I started to get a tad bored, to be honest), but the last third really picked up steam and gave me enough new material to get excited about the conclusion.

4. The ending.  Because it's awesome.  I was afraid that the book was going to peter out after building so much good suspense (it had the potential to go that way, to take the easy way out), but I was delighted by the unexpected turn at the finale.  Didn't see it coming, and that's always a win for me.

5. The...daughter.  Not to be cheesy and use the title as a list item, but Naomi was such an interesting character.  I spent a lot of time trying to figure her out.  I didn't have her completely pegged by the end, but that's half the fun: trying to unravel her mysteries and get inside her head, even after the last page.

As always, much thanks to Trish and TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour!
Want to find out more?  Check out the other blogs on this book tour HERE.  And connect with Jane Shemilt on Twitter.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

GIVEAWAY! Life From Scratch by Sasha Martin


Title: Life From Scratch
Author: Sasha Martin
Publisher: National Geographic
Publication Date: March 3, 2015
Source: copy received for honest review through TLC Book Tours

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

It was a culinary journey like no other: Over the course of 195 weeks, food writer and blogger Sasha Martin set out to cook—and eat—a meal from every country in the world. As cooking unlocked the memories of her rough-and-tumble childhood and the loss and heartbreak that came with it, Martin became more determined than ever to find peace and elevate her life through the prism of food and world cultures. From the tiny, makeshift kitchen of her eccentric, creative mother to a string of foster homes to the house from which she launches her own cooking adventure, Martin’s heartfelt, brutally honest memoir reveals the power of cooking to bond, to empower, and to heal—and celebrates the simple truth that happiness is created from within.

My Review:

If you like memoirs, and you like food, then look no further, reader friends!  I've got the book for you.

I was initially drawn to this book by that first line of the description.  Cooking food from all 195 countries of the world?  I'm drooling all over myself and I haven't even started reading yet.  If you have a penchant for good eats, you won't be disappointed--Martin peppers her narrative with many of the recipes she's tried over the years, and they sound DELICIOUS.  Especially the Dark Chocolate Guinness Cake with Baileys Buttercream--I will be dusting off my baking skills to try that out soon.

However, when you begin reading, the culinary delights of this book take a backseat to Martin's emotional retelling of her childhood.  She endured a long list of hardships as she grew up--being sent to foster care, the death of her brother, and the emotional abandonment of her legal guardians, just to name a few--but Martin has a way of telling her story that makes you feel like you are privy to not only the events of her childhood, but also to the emotional journeys that she endured during that time.  This is especially true as you watch Martin's connection with her mother unfold.  She really bears her soul as she attempts to figure out her mother's actions and emotions throughout their tumultuous relationship.  As a reader, I wrestled with my own emotions about their problems, and any memoir that can make you feel part of such a journey is well-written indeed.

Did I still get the satisfaction of reading about Martin's global culinary adventures?  Yes, but by the time that part of the book unfolds, it blends seamlessly into the poignant family history that's already been building throughout the rest of the memoir.  By then, the recipes are about so much more than the food that ends up on the plate.  As such, the last section of the book brings her past and present together perfectly.

I can't say enough good things here, readers!  Go read Sasha Martin's fascinating memoir.  Then cook her recipes and eat all the feelings that it made you have while reading.

As always, much thanks to Trish and TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour!
Want to find out more?  Check out the other blogs on this book tour HERE.  And connect with Sasha Martin on her website, Facebook, and Twitter.

GIVEAWAY TIME!
The publisher is giving away a copy of Life From Scratch to one of my lucky readers!  Just use the Rafflecopter below to enter.  US entrants only.  Ends 3/12.
a Rafflecopter giveaway

Thursday, February 19, 2015

5 Reasons I Adored The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez


Title: The Book of Unknown Americans
Author: Cristina Henriquez
Publisher: Knopf
Publication Date: June 3, 2014
Source: borrowed from the good ol' public library

Summary from Goodreads

After their daughter Maribel suffers a near-fatal accident, the Riveras leave México and come to America. But upon settling at Redwood Apartments, a two-story cinderblock complex just off a highway in Delaware, they discover that Maribel's recovery--the piece of the American Dream on which they've pinned all their hopes--will not be easy. Every task seems to confront them with language, racial, and cultural obstacles.

At Redwood also lives Mayor Toro, a high school sophomore whose family arrived from Panamà fifteen years ago. Mayor sees in Maribel something others do not: that beyond her lovely face, and beneath the damage she's sustained, is a gentle, funny, and wise spirit. But as the two grow closer, violence casts a shadow over all their futures in America.


My Review:

I am really struggling with making my reviews exciting these days, reader friends.  I've been at the reviewing game now for 2.5 years, and it's hard to say something different and engaging each time.  So, I'm taking a little advice from Leah @ Books Speak Volumes, and structuring this review a tad differently in order to shake things up.  I hope this will make it more fun for me to write reviews, and also make it more fun for you as a reader.

Without further ado...5 Reasons I Adored The Book of Unknown Americans!

1. Its inclusiveness.  I've read many books (fiction and nonfiction) over the years that tackle various aspects of the immigrant experience.  However, this is the first one I've encountered that brought in such a wide variety of perspectives.  While the Rivera and Toro families are certainly at the center of this story, you also get chapters that focus (albeit briefly) on many of their neighbors and friends who hail from a range of countries: Mexico, Puerto Rico, Guatemala, Panama, etc.  And they all came to the US for very different reasons--though the end goals of happiness and fulfillment are largely the same.  This extensive range of viewpoints adds a lot of depth to the story.

2. Its brevity.  For a book with so much emotional complexity, it's a very quick read.  It packs a big punch in a small-ish number of pages.

3. Mayor and Maribel's relationship.  Everyone knows I'm not much for literary romance, but Mayor and Maribel transcend your usual teenage love story.  Watching Mayor fall for Maribel, despite her medical struggles after her accident, is beautiful and moving and all-around awesome.  And the way he helps her communicate with the world will tug at your heart strings.

4. It will get your wheels turning.  The main focus of the book is obviously the experience of the Latino immigrants in the novel, but as an extension of their struggles, I also found myself thinking about the motives and misfortunes of the American citizens they encountered who discriminated against them (especially the primary antagonist, Garrett).  People don't create hate in a vacuum.  This book will force you to think about why.

5. This quote:"We're the unknown Americans, the ones no one even wants to know, because they've been told they're supposed to be scared of us and because maybe if they did take the time to get to know us, they might realize that we're not that bad, maybe even that we're a lot like them.  And who would they hate then?"

Read this book, friends!  I have not-a-one bad thing to say about it (and way more than 5 good things that I could say).

What was the last quick-ish book you read that also packed an emotional gut-punch?

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Book Review: Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult


Title: Leaving Time
Author: Jodi Picoult
Publisher: Ballantine
Publication Date: October 14, 2014
Source: borrowed from the good ol' public library

Summary from Goodreads

For more than a decade, Jenna Metcalf has never stopped thinking about her mother, Alice, who mysteriously disappeared in the wake of a tragic accident. Refusing to believe that she would be abandoned as a young child, Jenna searches for her mother regularly online and pores over the pages of Alice’s old journals. A scientist who studied grief among elephants, Alice wrote mostly of her research among the animals she loved, yet Jenna hopes the entries will provide a clue to her mother’s whereabouts.

Desperate to find the truth, Jenna enlists two unlikely allies in her quest. The first is Serenity Jones, a psychic who rose to fame finding missing persons—only to later doubt her gifts. The second is Virgil Stanhope, a jaded private detective who originally investigated Alice’s case along with the strange, possibly linked death of one of her colleagues. As the three work together to uncover what happened to Alice, they realize that in asking hard questions, they’ll have to face even harder answers.

As Jenna’s memories dovetail with the events in her mother’s journals, the story races to a mesmerizing finish. A deeply moving, gripping, and intelligent page-turner, Leaving Time is Jodi Picoult at the height of her powers.


My Review:

OF COURSE I'm reviewing the latest Jodi Picoult release within a few weeks of its release date, and OF COURSE I loved it.  Sometimes I'm just so predictable.  (In all fairness, I don't love every Picoult novel...Songs of the Humpback Whale was mediocre at best...but 22 out of 23 is a pretty good success rate.)  :)

First, I should mention that I was pleased with how Larger Than Life (the novella that Picoult released in advance of Leaving Time) meshed with this novel.  Alice is not the protagonist in Leaving Time, but her actions do drive much of the story, so it was nice to already feel like I had some insight into her persona when the novel opened.  Larger Than Life doesn't give any spoilers, and you won't be at a disadvantage if you haven't read it, but it does provide an enjoyable compliment to this book.

Readers who decry Picoult as too formulaic will be happy to hear that there is no legal case involved in Leaving Time.  None!  I promise!  Though she does stick to her usual multiple-perspective POV, this novel had a much different feel for me than her others.  It is definitely the most mystery-driven, as you spend much of the novel trying to figure out whether Jenna's mother is alive or dead, and who caused her disappearance.  Lots of good, old-fashioned police work happening in this novel, which gives it more of a "whodunit" flavor, versus the family drama that sits front-and-center in much of Picoult's work (though there is a good amount of that as well).

I must say, I was a tad nervous about the whole psychic aspect that Serenity Jones brought to the novel.  I am more inclined to enjoy books that have a solid real-world focus, rather than supernatural elements.  However, I found myself impressed by how smoothly Serenity's "gift" was worked into the plot, and in the end, I didn't find the "otherworldly" details hard to believe at all.  Which is saying a lot, since they play a rather large role in the story.

If you've read any of Picoult's other novels, you know that she's also famous for the Big Twist Ending.  If that's your thing, you absolutely will NOT be disappointed.  I thought for sure that I had the ending staked down between two possibilities, and they were both blown completely out of the water.  I really wish I could tell you what I turned and yelled at my husband when I read it (expletives and all), but that would spoil it for you, so I won't.  (Which is too bad.  It was rather hilarious.)  But suffice to say, this is a book that's worth savoring right up to the very last page.

I know you already expected a great review from me on this one, but I promise you, this is one of the best JP novels I've read in a long time!

Have you read any of Jodi Picoult's novels?  Do you think you will be picking up Leaving Time anytime soon?

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Book Review: Larger Than Life by Jodi Picoult


Title: Larger Than Life
Author: Jodi Picoult
Publisher: Ballantine
Publication Date: August 4, 2014
Source: personal purchase

Summary from Goodreads

From Jodi Picoult, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Storyteller and My Sister’s Keeper, comes a gripping and beautifully written novella, now available exclusively as an eBook. Set in the wilds of Africa, Larger Than Life introduces Alice, the unforgettable character at the center of Picoult’s anticipated new novel, Leaving Time
 
A researcher studying memory in elephants, Alice is fascinated by the bonds between mother and calf—the mother’s powerful protective instincts and her newborn’s unwavering loyalty. Living on a game reserve in Botswana, Alice is able to view the animals in their natural habitat—while following an important rule: She must only observe and never interfere. Then she finds an orphaned young elephant in the bush and cannot bear to leave the helpless baby behind. Thinking back on her own childhood, and on her shifting relationship with her mother, Alice risks her career to care for the calf. Yet what she comes to understand is the depth of a parent’s love.


My Review:

This will be short and sweet, partly because I already said quite a bit about this selection earlier in the week, and partly because the novella is pretty short and sweet on its own.  This is a great precursor to Jodi Picoult's new book, Leaving Time, which is being released in about 2 weeks.  Despite the small size of Larger Than Life, by the time I hit the last page, I felt invested in the characters and was dying to know what would come next for them in Leaving Time.  This gives you an interesting POV too, because Alice (the protagonist in Larger Than Life) has disappeared after an accident when you encounter her in Leaving Time.  This will definitely leave you curious about where Alice's story will fit in to the longer novel.

This novella does not match exactly what you've come to expect from Jodi Picoult's novels.  No multiple-POV format, no legal case, no crazy-twist ending.  It does, however, include all of the emotional upheaval and deep character development that she is known for.  By the end, I was impressed by how many heart-wrenching scenes she was able to place into one small package.  No loss of passion here, that's for sure.

If the purpose of this novella is to get you ravenously interested in Leaving Time, then as you may have guessed: mission accomplished.

Have you ever read a "companion" book to a larger novel or series?  What did you think?  Was it helpful, or did it feel unnecessary?

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Book Review: The Memory of Love by Linda Olsson


Title: The Memory of Love
Author: Linda Olsson
Publisher: Penguin
Publication Date: February 26, 2013 (first published in Swedish in 2011)
Source: copy received from the publisher for an honest review

Summary from Goodreads

Marion Flint, in her early fifties, has spent fifteen years living a quiet life on the rugged coast of New Zealand, a life that allows the door to her past to remain firmly shut. But a chance meeting with a young boy, Ika, and her desire to help him force Marion to open the Pandora’s box of her memory. Seized by a sudden urgency to make sense of her past, she examines each image one-by-one: her grandfather, her mother, her brother, her lover. Perhaps if she can create order from the chaos, her memories will be easier to carry. Perhaps she’ll be able to find forgiveness for the little girl that was her. For the young woman she had been. For the people she left behind.
 
Olsson expertly interweaves scenes from Marion’s past with her quest to save Ika from his own tragic childhood, and renders with reflective tenderness the fragility of memory and the healing power of the heart.


My Review:

I love a book that I go into with no expectations, and it ends up being a pleasant surprise.  I *think* I received this book ages ago from the publisher when it was first released in English, and I just never got a chance to review it at the time.  It sat forlornly on my shelf until it got picked in the TBR Book Baggie.  It seemed fairly short, so I gave it a go...and what a gem I found!

The two stories within this novel (of Marion's childhood and Marion's present-day issues with a young boy that she's taken under her wing) are woven together beautifully.  As you learn more about Marion's past, the way she chooses to deal with her present makes more and more sense.  And her past is quite shocking--the slow buildup to the climax of her childhood trauma made me want to devour the entire book in one sitting.  All of this is highlighted by the fabulous writing, which is lyrical and poetic without coming off as too flowery.

The fact that this isn't a terribly long review shouldn't be a reflection on the quality of the book, as it may be one of my top reads of 2014.  It's a smaller book in size, but it packs a big punch with complex characters, surprising twists, and intriguing relationships.  Someone order me Linda Olsson's backlist, STAT.

This was my fifth pick from the TBR Book Baggie! My next pick from the baggie is:

Moby Dick by Herman Melville!

Yup...I'm a little intimidated.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Book Review: Cutting Teeth by Julia Fierro


Title: Cutting Teeth
Author: Julia Fierro
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication Date: May 13, 2014
Source: copy received for honest review through TLC Book Tours

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

One of the most anticipated debut novels of 2014, Cutting Teeth takes place one late-summer weekend as a group of thirty-something couples gather at a shabby beach house on Long Island, their young children in tow.

They include Nicole, the neurotic hostess terrified by internet rumors that something big and bad is going to happen in New York City that week; stay-at-home dad Rip, grappling with the reality that his careerist wife will likely deny him a second child, forcing him to disrupt the life he loves; Allie, one half of a two-mom family, and an ambitious artist, facing her ambivalence toward family life; Tiffany, comfortable with her amazing body but not so comfortable in the upper-middle class world the other characters were born into; and Leigh, a blue blood secretly facing financial ruin and dependent on Tenzin, the magical Tibetan nanny everyone else covets. These tensions build, burn, and collide over the course of the weekend, culminating in a scene in which the ultimate rule of the group is broken. 


My Review:

True story: I went into this book MAJORLY hemming-and-hawing, totally dragging my feet.  And I left it thinking that it may be on my Faves of 2014 list at the end of the year.

Why all the whining beforehand?  Honestly, because I think I am hitting THE WALL with "mommy fiction".  I know, I write about it all the time and talk about how it's one of my favorite genres (hence why I jumped on this tour in the first place!).  But it's kind of like when my mom packed me a peanut-butter-and-fluff sandwich for lunch almost every day in fifth grade.  It started out as the best thing ever, but by the end of the year...well, I haven't eaten a PB & fluff in about 20 years.

However, Cutting Teeth stands out in the genre, and can't really be grouped entirely in the mommy category anyway.  It is a more honest, authentic, and dare I say...gritty interpretation of fictional parenthood than most others that I've read.  The majority of fiction books that I read about motherhood tend to be rather light-hearted, humorous, and nearly always happily-ended.  But Cutting Teeth gets at the tougher side of parenting.  Each character is, on the whole, a good parent--but inside, emotionally, they are dealing with many of the doubts and problems that even the best parents face.  Much of this is focused on identity: who each of them have become in the wake of parental responsibility.  In the end, each character is trying to figure out their true self now that they are submerged in the ever-important role of "parent"--and that is a struggle that any mom or dad can certainly relate to.

One of the best things about this book is the deep character-building that takes place.  I have seen other reviewers say that this book lacks in plot development, but I would argue that that is because it is so character-driven.  One of my recent gripes with other mommy-focused books is that so many of the characters feel one-dimensional.  You'll have the All-Natural Mom ("I only buy organic and cloth diaper!"), the Working Mom ("Watch me struggle with work/family balance!"), the Fertility Issues Mom (I am not downplaying the seriousness of this issue, but it does get tired when every book tackles it the same way), etc.  And amazingly, by the end of the book they all figure out their issues and/or learn to have respect for other perspectives, yadda yadda.

Yes, the characters in Cutting Teeth do each have very particular traits, and yes, sometimes those traits are overemphasized (case in point: Nicole and her freakish fears about the end of the world, meant to illustrate Overprotective Mommy).  However, as a whole, each character is rounded-out quite nicely.  For example: Tiffany, the child development specialist who lectures other moms on how to best parent their kids, also happens to be a white-trash sex fiend.  Which makes her feel pretty authentic to me (or maybe I'm just hanging out with the wrong people at playgroups, whichever).  Plus, there's a stay-at-home dad!  And a same-sex couple!  And sperm donors!  And nearly everyone has crazy secrets!  Anyway, lots of interesting relationships here, is what I'm getting at.

I should also point out that this book, while heavy on the kid talk, would likely still make interesting reading for those without kids.  That's especially true if you're into novels with great characterization and lots of relationship drama.  If you think you can overlook the parenting chit-chat, this one is worth a read.

That rather long-winded analysis boils down to this: Cutting Teeth tackles the realities of parenting with a level of honesty that I found to be refreshing.  Yes, sometimes it is almost too pessimistic at times, but perhaps this genre needs a swing in that direction once in a while.  Because being a parent is hard, y'all.  And it seems to be rather unpopular to directly recognize that fact (no one wants to be viewed as the unhappy parent).  But this book pulls no punches, which is a nice change of pace.

As always, much thanks to Lisa and TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour!
Check out the other blogs on this book tour HERE.  And connect with Julia Fierro on her website, Twitter, Pinterest, and Facebook.


Monday, April 28, 2014

Book Review: Driving Lessons by Zoe Fishman


Title: Driving Lessons
Author: Zoe Fishman
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication Date: April 8, 2014
Source: copy received for honest review through TLC Book Tours

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

When Sarah and her husband trade in a crowded commute, cramped apartment, and high stress New York City jobs for life the slow lane in Farmwood, VA, the pressure is on to have a baby. At thirty-six Sarah knows it's time to get started, but the urgency motivating her to reach this pinnacle of self-fulfillment looms large. Meanwhile, her best friend Mona, a single and successful editor who's always wanted children, is diagnosed with cervical cancer. At the same time, Sarah's younger and seemingly perfect sister-in-law has just given birth to her son, Franklin. When Sarah uproots her new life with her husband in Virginia to return to New York and care for Mona, the three women will help each other navigate their new realities.

My Review:

Ah, women's fiction.  Lord knows it's been one of my preferred genres for a long time.  Especially when it's also borderline "mommy fiction", like Driving Lessons.  I love it when an author can really dive deep into the emotional side of marriage, motherhood, and friendships: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Driving Lessons attempts to do just that.  Sarah is balancing a huge career change, her marriage, a big move from NYC to the countryside, her relationship with her sister-in-law, her best friend's hysterectomy, and the decision of whether or not she wants to be a mother.  Tough, thought-provoking stuff.  All this, plus she hasn't driven a car in years, so she needs to take driving lessons once she moves down to Virginia.  (Cue "Very Obvious Metaphor Used Throughout Novel".  Sorry, don't mean to be snarky.  It just nags me a bit when the metaphors are SO blatant.)

It's hard not to like Sarah.  She's a fun, somewhat socially awkward thirty-something, who manages to approach most of the mishaps that are thrown at her with a positive attitude and good humor.  But this inherent likeability is also the reason why this book probably will not leave a lasting impression on me.  Everything just seems to come up roses for most of the characters...even when they are battling truly devastating circumstances (like her friend Mona, who is diagnosed with cancer).  Many of the characters themselves seem a tad too perfect (Sarah's husband Josh pretty much fits every mold for Model Husband).  And the girl-power love-fests just got to be WAY too much for me after a while.  So many of the female-to-female conversations devolved into "You're so wonderful!", "No, YOU are!" scenarios that I started to gag a little towards the end.

Overall, I like the premise of this novel.  It has a heartwarming message.  And I had a good time getting to know Sarah.  But with SO many tough issues to explore, I expected something a little more hard-hitting, and a little less perfectly tied together.  I usually do like the inherent optimism of women's fiction novels, but this one tipped a bit too much on the happy-girl-power scale for me to really get behind it.  There has to be a few thorns in the roses sometimes, I suppose.

As always, much thanks to Trish and TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour!
Check out the other blogs on this book tour HERE.  And connect with Zoe Fishman on her website and Twitter.

 
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