Sunday, October 19, 2014

Book Review: Small Blessings

The description of this book drew me in: "A remarkable new woman at the college bookshop helps a professor - and the son he never knew he had - realize life's small blessings." I did enjoy the book, but there were a few things that didn't sit well with me. For one, the English professor is painted as such a long-suffering saint for staying with a wife who suffers from mental neurosis and lauded for only straying once, in a meager three-week affair. Yet, as soon as she is gone, he embarks on a new relationship, declared to be "love," only days after her demise. Somehow, I couldn't agree to seeing him as a saint. But, if I let go of that, and simply dissolved into the story, the writing did lure me in.

Tom Putnam feels that life has passed him by. He is stuck in a meaningless existence, whiling away the time teaching Shakespeare while sharing the care of his mentally-challenged wife with his live-in  mother-in-law. His own guilt from having a brief affair with a visiting poet eats away at him because it caused his wife to slip further into her neurosis. Then, one day, he receives a letter in the mail, supposedly from the poet, supposedly suggesting that he is the father of a ten year old boy who will be arriving at his doorstep soon for a visit. Once the child arrives, it is clear (because of his race and younger age) that he is not, in fact, the professor's son, but Putnam does the right thing (as his reputation suggests) and embraces the child as his own.

Before Putnam is able to announce the child's immanent arrival, his wife dies in a tragic car accident (possible suicide) and Putnam is drawn into the spell of Rose Callahan, who is a new employee at the college bookstore (his own wife declared her to be worthy of interest, by stepping out of character and inviting her for dinner). How will he deal with the release brought by his wife's death? Will Rose and Tom get together eventually? Who is the child, really, and how did he end up on Tom's doorstep? How will Tom's colleague Russell deal with the loss of his visions of a possible relationship with Rose for himself?

It was an interesting enough story. I did find myself embracing the characters, despite being unwilling to see Putnam as the all-round-good-guy or being quite able to understand the magical lure of Rose, who was an average character, at best. It was intriguing to me to consider how a spouse suffers when a person is mentally unbalanced (especially since I know something of this from watching my husband have to deal with the fall-out of my own clinical depression when I was at my worst). The sense of helplessness that Tom Putnam expressed on behalf of his wife was spot-on. Still, I would hope that my husband wouldn't consider my own death, in the midst of my struggles, to be a welcome release.

I could also relate to Rose's desire to keep moving from one place to another because of her upbringing. I, myself, suffer from a wander-lust driven by my childhood moves of every three years. The thought of staying permanently in this house in Indiana, where I feel devoid of lasting friendships, is excruciatingly painful. I understand Rose's fears entirely.

I agree with the comments on the inside cover, which proclaim this to be "A heartwarming story with a charmingly imperfect cast of characters to cheer for, Small Blessings, has a wonderfully optimistic heart that reminds us that sometimes, when it feels as if life has veered irrevocably off track, the track shifts in ways we never could have imagined." For a debut novel, I think Martha Woodroof pulled off an interesting story, with interesting characters, and a compelling plot. It made me wonder if she could see all the pieces before she started writing or if the bits fell into place as the story progressed from her pen. However she managed it, I think it was a moderate success.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Book Review: The Elite

I couldn't wait to get my hands on the second book in The Selection trilogy by Kiera Cass. Thus, instead of waiting in the long hold list at my library, I went to a town further away and placed my name on their shorter hold list. I didn't enjoy this second book as much as I had the first, but I'm still ending it with an eagerness to seek out the third and finally, discover America's ultimate destiny.

America Singer is one of "The Elite," the six candidates left in "The Selection" for a new princess for the kingdom of Illea (a future caste-structured United States).  The prince, Maxon, has sent home twenty-nine others and still declares his primary interest in America. She, however, is still struggling with her heart. Part of me felt really irked that she would lead two men on, declaring an interest in both Maxon and her hometown boyfriend, Aspen. Frankly, I don't quite understand the appeal of Aspen. As a character he's not very compelling. But, I guess I do believe that a girl in such a situation might want to keep all of her avenues open, in case Maxon decides to select someone else. Still, in my heart, I want her to center on one and stop being so fickle.

When one of the other girls is discovered cavorting with a guard, she and the guard are made an example to the kingdom and beaten in a public arena. America is horrified. You'd think it would be a big neon sign for her to end her own pursuit of her first-love and guard, Aspen. You'd think anyway.

Obviously, I'm deep enough into the book that these characters feel real to me and that is the mark of a good read. I've been sucked into the fairy tale scenario. I feel invested in this selection process. The desire to know who is chosen is strong and I want to know whether it is Maxon's own choice, or the dictates of his father. I'm sure I will seek out the third book as soon as I can. Hopefully, the hold lists aren't too long for that one.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Book Review: Firewall

The book, Firewall, by Diann Mills, is a Christian thriller/mystery. As far as thrillers go, it was filled with suspense and a fast-moving plot. The reader is swept into the action within the first few pages and the action doesn't really let up until the end, when everything is resolved nicely and good triumphs over evil, and God is affirmed as being the true source of comfort and sustenance. The inclusion of God into the story still felt somewhat like ... well, a purposeful inclusion of God into the story. In other words, I guess I just didn't feel that the religious bits were naturally woven into the story, but rather felt forced or tagged on. Still, the plot was excellent and the writing was seamless. I did enjoy it.

Taryn Young is heading for her honeymoon. When she steps away from her husband to use the restroom in the airport, she never expects that a bomb will explode. Nor is she ready for the discovery that both she and her husband are now suspects in the bombing. Her husband clearly is not the person she thought he was. Has her whole whirlwind romance been a lie? Will she be able to convince the FBI that she was not involved in the plans to bomb the airport? Will she be able to help her company salvage a computer program she disabled prior to leaving for the honeymoon? Who is responsible for the many deaths surrounding these events? What do they want and hope to accomplish?

You can see that there are plenty of gripping, plot-driving questions. The pacing is perfect. The final reveal of the central bad-guy took me by surprise. While it does require the willful suspension of disbelief (I found it difficult to believe the timid, gullible computer programming nerd would be gutsy and grounded enough to put herself in harm's way in order to assist in the investigation or that she would be willing to consider romance with the FBI agent on the heels of her discovery of the betrayal and deception of her marriage ), it was easy to get swept up in the story. If you are looking for a Christian-based thriller, you will not regret taking the time to read this book. It holds the reader spellbound for the duration. As far as plotting goes, it receives an A+.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Book Review: During the Reign of the Queen of Persia

The title makes this book sound like it will be some sort of historical fiction. It isn't. It is simply a tale about four girls (cousins) living together in a small Ohio farmhouse and dealing with what it means to be a woman, with life, and with the tragedy of death. The title refers to the matriarch - the grandmother - who is a fiery, determined old woman ruling over her four daughters and their offspring.

This was a book club pick and the first time I have ever read a book for group and then thought to myself, "I really didn't like the book enough to even want to gather around and discuss it." It just wasn't my thing. A winner of several awards for first fiction, lots of people on Amazon are raving about the lyrical writing and comparing it to the writing of Marilynne Robinson (author of the wonderful book, Gilead - a much better read).

If I had to quantify why I didn't really care for the novel, it seems to boil down to nothing drawing me in at any point. It was definitely slow going in the beginning. The characters were neither likeable nor interesting. There was little to call a plot, since it is really a stream-of-consciousness telling of the events leading up to and after the death of their beloved Aunt Grace, from cancer. (Spoiler alert: skip this sentence.) It ends abruptly with one of the granddaughters attempting suicide and losing the baby she was carrying. The ruminations on the difficulties of being a woman grated on me at times. I almost gave up on it several times and would have definitely set it aside if it hadn't been a book club pick. But part of me kept hoping it would pick up after a bit and I would come to feel differently about the book.

Alas, I think I'll be skipping this month's club meeting and wishing I had spent the time reading another book on my huge stack. I've been inundated recently with held books from the library which have come available to me but must be read within the three week loan period because someone else will be waiting for them on the hold list. At the moment, I have nine books due sometime between now and the 31st, which cannot be renewed because they are from a lengthy hold list. Something will have to give or something be neglected. Sadly, they all sound interesting and worthy of my time. Do you ever encounter this kind of problem?

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Book Review: The Kill Order

A few weeks ago, Trevor and I went to see the movie adaptation of James Dashner's, The Maze Runner. I had thoroughly enjoyed the fast-paced book and knew it would be an absorbing movie. Well, while we were absorbed, I was also a little disturbed. Mid-way-through, I began to worry that, without checking the movie's rating, I had unwittingly taken my almost ten-year-old to a rated R movie. It was that violent. I discovered that the movie was rated PG-13, and if I had waited to show him the movie when he was 13, I probably wouldn't have been as concerned. Of course, Trevor assured me that it wasn't too horrific for him. Our children have come to expect graphic violence in movies. I still think The Maze Runner is an excellent YA book, (a great book, indeed, for a reluctant male reader) just not exactly the best fare for the younger set.

When I headed to the library in search of another audio book to listen to while walking on the treadmill, I stumbled upon Dashner's prequel to The Maze Runner series, The Kill Order. While this book was fast-paced, at times the action became a bit too much and the constant difficulties seemed drawn out just to keep the book going. The obstacles they faced were repetitious (same old obstructions over and over again - hordes of the ill surround them several times, the weapons accidentally fall into the hands of the enemy twice, the boy finds himself hanging with an enemy out of an aircraft window twice, etc.). But, it was interesting to hear how the world came to be in the state which led to the institution of the maze (although there's really no explanation offered for the origins of WCKD, the group behind the maze).

Moreover, with the recent introduction of Ebola to our country's soil, it was a terrifying ride to observe a society attempting to achieve population control through the use of biological warfare. It hit a bit too close to home and I was genuinely disturbed thinking of the realistic prospect of this fictional scenario. It isn't that big of a stretch to think that some evil individuals would actually consider that to be a necessary course of action in the face of the world's problems.

If you are looking for more information about the characters in The Maze Runner, you'll be disappointed. It is really a separate story altogether. The book begins with a natural catastrophe of sun flares wiping out the earth's resources and much of the population. Mark and Trina are barely surviving in their little settlement in the Appalachian mountains, when suddenly a large, hovering aircraft lowers its ramp and individuals in hazmat suits begin shooting people with darts. Mark and his military friend, Alec, manage to get aboard the ship and discover the darts contain a virus known as "the flare." Surviving the sun flares becomes child's play compared to what they are facing now, but they are determined to live long enough to ensure that a cure for the virus is discovered.

The book presents a realistic, and horrifying, glimpse at the demise of civilization as we know it. It is action-packed enough to appeal to reluctant readers. I didn't enjoy it as much as The Maze Runner, but it was certainly a riveting read. The minutes did slip away while I was listening (and that's an absolute requirement for my audio books, to distract myself from the exercise).

Thursday, October 9, 2014

If I Could Change One Thing About Myself

If I could change one thing about myself, I would be fearless in the face of physical pain or medical intervention of any kind. Fearless, I am not. I am the world's biggest wimp and spend far more time in anticipatory agony than is normal or healthy. Of course I know the reason behind my fears - the traumatic experience I had at the age of three, when I received 64 shots in the space of 8 days. Knowing the origin of the fear doesn't help me lessen it. The imprint has been made.

On Wednesday, I had to have a filling removed and refilled. I suppose if I had my druthers, I'd have chosen the laughing gas, the path of least resistance. However, after such anesthesia left Nick Allen (the brother of my good friend Laura's husband) in a horrible physical state (unable to care for himself - a mere shell of his former self), my mother is quite adamant that I choose the shot route.

Alas, the shot route terrifies me. Even though I had a filling refilled just a few years ago, with little pain, I still grow apprehensive and nervous. I worry that the assistant won't get the numbing agent in the right place. I worry that the shot will hurt. I worry that something will happen and I will suddenly feel the drill biting into the inside of my tooth.

Now that it is all over, I can breathe a sigh of relief. The numbing agent worked (although I don't think she put it on the side where the shot was injected) and the shot was relatively painless. I say relatively because it wasn't entirely painless. It was uncomfortable and a bit sharp and I did moan while they did it (Sean prayed last night that I wouldn't scream and so embarrass myself - ha). They waited a good long time to allow the medicine to completely numb half of my face. The drilling was uncomfortable because of the pressure and having to keep my mouth wide open. But, as I said, I survived.

In the aftermath of every medical crisis, I feel embarrassed at my low level of pain resistance, embarrassed at my queasiness in the face of shots, embarrassed at my general childishness in reaction to the necessary intervention. Sadly, I don't think a change will come. I won't wake up tomorrow and be better able to handle such things. Instead, I am vowing to brush my teeth even longer and take care of my teeth and body more aggressively, so as to avoid any further need of medical intervention to keep me whole.

How about you? Do you have a pathological fear of something? What would you change, if you could change one thing about yourself?

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Book Review: How the Heather Looks

My blogging friend, Catherine, of A Spirited Mind, brought this book to my attention. I was intrigued by the content of the book, in addition to the sad story Catherine provided of the author's life after this glorious experience of a family trip to England to research and seek out the background locations for their favorite works of children's literature. (To discover more about the author's difficult life read Catherine's post or Bodger's own book about her life, The Crack in the Teacup. Even the Amazon listing of her book tells a good deal about her sad, but inspiring, story.)

The very title of this book beckons me in: How the Heather Looks: A Joyous Journey to the British Sources of Children's Books. Who wouldn't love taking their children on a trip with the express intent of finding the magical places from their beloved storybooks? It would be a dream come true for me to take my children on such a trip. Then again, it would be a dream come true if my children expressed the magical awe for books which the author and her children share. Sadly, only one of my sons has a voracious appetite for books, but even he doesn't evidence the command of literature which Bodger's 8 year old son seems to have.

I must say, I felt a bit sad that most of the books mentioned were ones I was familiar with but had never actually read (or if, perhaps, my parents did read them to me in my early years, they have since vanished from my brain). It would have been so much more meaningful if I had more familiarity with the children's literature she mentions. I enjoyed reading about their excursions and their desperate attempts to find the sources of these timeless tales. Indeed, I was amazed at the author's ability to recall the events with such clarity (since she was writing well after the fact and including bits of information she had gleaned after their trip). It was an easy read and certainly engrossing. A perfect book for anyone who loves England and loves children's books.

For me, I found myself thinking of the wonderful tour I was able to experience with the Wheaton-in-England program. Not only did I have the company of many other Anglophiles and bibliophiles like myself, but I also had the opportunity to immerse myself in the literature while coming in contact with the specific locations. We visited Shakespeare's Stratford-upon-Avon, the Bronte's Haworth moors, Dickens' locations in London and Rochester, King Arthur's environs of Winchester Castle and Glastonbury's Tor, Milton's Cottage in Chalfont St. Giles, Wordsworth's Lake District and C.S. Lewis' house and grave.  It was a grand opportunity and I feel especially blessed.

I have read several books recently which would inspire such a trip: Major Pettigrew's Last Stand (the area of Sussex, England), Maeve Binchy's books set in Ireland, and especially the detailed journey in The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (what fun a walking tour like that would be). The other day, I saw a Groupon for an eight-day trip to London, Paris, and Rome. Oh how I wish I could convince my husband to take that trip with me to celebrate our upcoming 25th anniversary. It would even count as research for a follow-up book to one of my young adult novels. Alas, he's not a bit interested in travel (or in spending the money) and I'm a bit hesitant to tackle it on my own. For now, I'll have to settle for books which take me on journeys like this, through the lands of endearing fiction.

In reading several other blog reviews of this book, I chanced upon a comment which referenced a similar book to this one, Christina Hardyment's The Canary-Coloured Cart: One Family's Search for Storybook Europe. At Hardyment's website, you can see she has written many books of this flavor. Another one which sounds interesting to me, is her book titled On the Writer's Trail. Clearly, I have further books to look into for my vicarious journeys.