Friday, April 18, 2014

Book Review: The Namesake

I'm so grateful for the opportunity to belong to book clubs. They often induce me to read books I might not have picked on my own. I had heard nothing of this book prior to seeing it on my book club's selection list. Had I been at the meeting when they were narrowing down to the eleven selections for the year, I might not have even voted for it. But, I am glad to have read this book. It held a lot of interesting ideas to consider and was a flavor I don't normally seek out.

In The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri tells the story of the Ganguli family as they emigrate from Calcutta to America after an arranged marriage. The tale opens with the birth of their first child, a son. They are waiting for an important letter from the grandmother, bearing the name suggestions for the baby. Sadly, the letter never arrives and Ashoke and Ashima select their own pet name for the boy, Gogol, named for the Russian writer whose book of short stories played a significant role in Ashoke's life. The boy grows to despise his name and eventually changes it, unaware of the reasoning behind his parents' choice.

I appreciated lots of aspects of this book. I loved the expert writing where the reader is sucked into the story completely, unaware of the author's presence. The prose was beautiful, full of rich sensory details. The characters were endearing and interesting. The story evokes so many deep ideas about identity and cultural leanings and the role of families. It causes the reader to contemplate the things which form their own identity and purpose. It opens up new horizons to consider, new ways of relating to the world. Every reader will benefit from the themes and ideas presented in this wonderfully written tale.

I would recommend the audio version of this book. It really brought the story to life with a narrator who was able to manage both the Indian pronunciations and the American accents. I think I enjoyed the book more in listening to it than I might have if I had plowed through it, reading on my own (since the middle does get bogged down a bit with details of the son's various relationships to illustrate his identity struggles).

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Book Review: Addison's Mark

It has been a while since I've bitten at any of the free books for review on the Story Cartel website. I've had plenty to occupy me without seeking out more. Plus, none of the books really seemed to jump out and grab me, until this past Friday, when they sent out a small blurb about a young adult novel being offered for review, called Addison's Mark. The hook was fantastic. It was clearly going to be a novel full of adventure and intrigue with great male reader appeal.

Here's the gist of what hooked me: Sam Addison is getting over the tragic deaths of both of his parents. Now orphaned, and dealing with the economic collapse of the country, Sam is merely existing until he befriends Ashlin Ammon, daughter of the next up-coming presidential candidate. While getting swept into the political fervor of a presidential campaign, Sam is visited by supernatural beings. He is even more perplexed by their presence when he wakens from one vision with a clear physical mark etched into his arm. Is he losing his mind? What do these supernatural beings want from him?

Great premise for a book. Great potential for a riveting story. It did indeed provide a story sure to appeal to male readers. It had a beautiful girl, supernatural elements, adventure, and intrigue. Still, it wasn't without some weaknesses. The story didn't get around to the heart of the hook until page 64. I don't believe I ever figured out why the mark was necessary in the first place or what the beings wanted from Sam, since he was pretty much a casual observer of the battles playing out between good and evil.

For me, the greatest weakness in the writing was the overuse of comparisons in an attempt to enhance the story for the reader. In a book of over two hundred pages, there were probably two or three similes or metaphors per page. Sometimes they were apt comparisons, but often they felt forced and disruptive to the story. For example: "She scratched below her chin like an old philosopher with a beard." For a free book, it wasn't a bad read. Sadly, I don't think I'll be looking for the sequel.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Book Review: Little Audrey

I thoroughly enjoyed Ruth White's middle-grade novel, Belle Prater's Boy, and the follow-up book, The Search for Belle Prater. I think I was just browsing when I happened upon this one, Little Audrey, a more historical memoir-type book. It was a quick, easy read.

In Little Audrey, Ruth White tells the story of a traumatic year in her life, through the eyes of her older sister, Audrey. The year is 1948 and eleven-year-old Audrey lives with her parents and three younger sisters, whom she calls "the three little pigs," in a coal-mining camp in Virginia. Audrey is recovering from scarlet fever, her mother is mourning the loss of her infant daughter, and her father is coping with life by turning to drink. I'm supposing the telling of the story through the narration of an older sister, allowed Ruth White some distance to the tale. I'm also wondering if the older sister expressed feelings of guilt over a comment she made just prior to the devastating loss her family experienced.

The story is told with child-like wonder and emotion. The author easily conveys how it felt to be a young child in a coal-mining community. Moreover, every reader will be able to relate to the hopes and dreams of something better, while coping with the less-than-best.  It is always interesting to me to discover more about the personal background of an author and how that influences their writing. I can certainly understand where the themes of yearning for a parent grew from in White's writings.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Book Review: Tara Road

I've had Maeve Binchy's, Tara Road, on my shelves for years, but never seemed to pick it up (probably because of the length and probably because I'm a sucker for listening to Binchy books in audio form so that I can enjoy the Irish accent in the narration). Then, a few weeks back, my library decided to do a major purge of their books in audio-cassette form. They were offering them ... for free! I kicked myself, after leaving with the bulky audio of Tara Road, for not picking up two Rosemary Pilcher books for my mother (Pilcher is one of her favorite authors).

I absolutely loved listening to this lengthy book. The length (fifteen cassettes long) turned out to be no problem at all. I didn't want the book to end. I relished my morning walk and even drew out the time longer, bringing my boom-box into the kitchen for my morning dish-washing chore, as well. I was swept up in the story and wanted to go on eavesdropping on the characters' lives endlessly. They feel as if they are real people I have known for years (surely the mark of a skilled author).

The tale begins with an introduction to Ria, a young woman who finds herself magically blessed with the love of her dashing, young husband, Danny Lynch, and with the acquisition of their dream home on Tara Road (a prosperous location in Dublin). After life settles in, with the birth of daughter, Annie, and son, Brian, Ria begins to feel restless and hopes that another baby is the solution. Sadly, there will be another baby for her husband, but it won't be hers.

Wishing to flee the devastation of a life which now feels like a lie, Ria immediately accepts the proposal of a young American woman, Marilyn Vine, for a home exchange over the summer. Marilyn, who is fleeing her own secrets and catastrophes, takes up residence in Tara Road. In typical Binchy fashion, a wide cast of characters weave their way in and out of the lives of these two lonely, desperate women. Personal drama abounds. There's nothing like being a fly on the wall in a Binchy-crafted world.

This book was chosen for an Oprah-Book-Club selection. I'm not surprised. Plus, it was made into a movie in 2005. Here's the trailer:


Thursday, April 10, 2014

My 1000th Post - 100 Favorite Authors

What to do when you are approaching your 1000th post? Reflecting on the fact that my blog is primarily about books, I decided to present a list of 100 of my favorite authors. I'm sure in attempting this, I will leave off an author who needs to be recognized (that's why I really loathe making these lists in the first place), but I should be able to come up with 100 authors, whose books I categorically love, without too much trouble.

I will list them by category. Plus, for the few who are one-hit wonders (I've only encountered one book which really soared), I will identify those with an asterisk (*).



Classics:

1) Charles Dickens
2) Fyodor Dostoevsky
3) Louisa May Alcott
4) Shakespeare
5) Thomas Hardy
6) Edgar Allen Poe
7) Mark Twain
8) E.M. Forster
9) Theodore Dreiser
10) John Steinbeck
11) Edith Wharton
12) T.S. Eliot
13) Emily Bronte *
14) Charlotte Bronte *
15) Victor Hugo *
16) Daphne du Maurier *
17) Harper Lee *

General Fiction:

18) Maeve Binchy
19) Alexander McCall Smith
20) Sophie Kinsella
21) Nicholas Sparks
22) Khaled Hosseini
23) Kristin Hannah
24) Jodi Picoult
25) Jeffrey Archer
26) Richard Paul Evans
27) Anita Shreve
28) Alan Bradley
29) Joanne Fluke
30) M.L. Stedman *
31) Audrey Niffenegger *
32) Kathryn Stockett *
33) Marilynne Robinson *
34) Mark Haddon *

General Non-Fiction:

35) Bill Bryson
36) Oliver Sacks
37) Annie Dillard
38) Mitch Albom
39) Torey L. Hayden
40) Anne Lamott
41) Christopher de Vinck
42) Stephen King * (Yes, he writes great fiction, but I love him primarily for his book on writing.)
43) Erik Larson *

Young Adult all the way down to Picture Books:

44) Kate DiCamillo
45) Kate Klise
46) Suzanne Collins
47) J.K. Rowling
48) Patrick Ness
49) Lois Lowry
50) Richard Peck
51) Andrew Clements
52) Madeleine L'Engle
53) Laura Ingalls Wilder
54) Katherine Paterson
55) Gloria Whelan
56) Louis Sachar
57) Gary D. Schmidt
58) Laurie Halse Anderson
59) Lauren Child
60) Louise Fitzhugh
61) Beverly Cleary
62) Roald Dahl
63) Judy Bloom
64) Sarah Weeks
65) Peg Kehret
66) Carl Hiassen
67) E.B. White
68) Deborah Wiles
69) A.A. Milne
70) Dr. Suess
71) Jeff Kinney
72) Bernard Waber
73) David Shannon
74) Eric Carle
75) Gus Clarke
76) Mercer Mayer
77) H.A. Rey
78) Gene Zion
79) Shel Silverstein
80) Markus Zusak *
81) Brandon Mull *
82) Frances Hodgson Burnett *

Christian Fiction:

83) Karen Kingsbury
84) C.S. Lewis
85) J.R.R. Tolkien
86) G.K. Chesterton
87) George MacDonald
88) Liz Curtis Higgs

Christian Non-fiction:

89) A.W. Tozer
90) Elizabeth Elliot
91) Philip Yancey
92) Beth Moore
93) Dr. Paul Brand
94) Ravi Zacharias
95) Frederick Buechner
96) Brennan Manning
97) John Piper
98) Kay Arthur
99) Mark Batterson *
100) Anne Voskamp *

Of these authors, I studied under Frederick Buechner, while at Wheaton College. I attended lectures by Brennan Manning, Madeleine L'Engle, and Elizabeth Elliot (whose neice was my best friend freshman year in college). I once received a personal letter from Gloria Whelan. And, the most incredible connection of all? While working for the Marion E. Wade Collection, I transcribed all the personal letters of C.S. Lewis, and went on a trip to assist with an oral history interview of his first cousin, Ruth Parker.

How about you? Did I miss one of your favorite authors? Do you have an interesting connection to a favorite author?

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Book Review: Truly, Madly, Deadly

Hannah Jayne's novel, Truly, Madly, Deadly, keeps the reader guessing clear to the end as to who is responsible for the tragic events unfolding in the story. The pacing in the book is excellent. The premise is intriguing. Still, somehow it ended up being just an okay read.

The back cover introduces the story with this blurb:

"Sawyer Dodd is a star athlete, straight-A student, and the envy of every other girl who wants to date Kevin Anderson. When Kevin dies in a tragic car crash, Sawyer is stunned. Then she opens her locker to find a note: 'You're welcome'.

"Someone saw what he did to her. Someone knows that Sawyer and Kevin weren't the perfect couple they seemed to be. And that someone - a killer - is now shadowing Sawyer's every move ..."

Anyone who has ever hurt or offended Sawyer becomes a target in the story and characters are dying like flies. Not only that, but the evidence always leads back to Sawyer (murder weapons showing up in her locker and discovered by the police). The suspects are endless: the two boys newly interested in forming a connection with Sawyer, the police officer first on each scene, the new step-mother, the best friend.  Who is causing damage to all who come up against Sawyer and why are they framing Sawyer with the evidence?

Interesting idea, but the writing still came off cliché and predictable. From numerous episodes of crying to questionable points in the plot (how could the friend return home without the car and with a bloody gash on her head, yet not raise any suspicions by the parents that she had even been out for the night?), the writing was just okay.

It was still worth the read, however. I think teens probably enjoy the suspense of the story and the conflicted nature of the main character. With a little bit of romance, a little bit of relational conflict, a lot of questions, and a steady stream of new evidence, the story does pull you along on a wild ride.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Book Review: A Prayer Journal

I've not been exposed to much literature by Flannery O'Connor. I've known several individuals who are big fans of O'Connor's works. But, I don't really know enough to comment on her writing. Still, when I came across her prayer journal, it sounded like an interesting read.

This prayer journal was penned while O'Connor was a writing student at the University of Iowa. I'm sure she had no intention of seeing this published. However, writers will find comfort in her words as she prays to avoid mediocrity and for God to give her words and to make her story His story, allowing her to merely be the vessel carrying His words, a prayer I would echo.

I enjoyed the cries of her heart for God to bless her with success for her writing and to show her grace and truth. I think my favorite image conveyed was this:

"You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth's shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon. The crescent is very beautiful and perhaps that is all one like I am should or could see, but what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing."

She also prays: "Please let Christian principles permeate my writing and please let there be enough of my writing (published) for Christian principles to permeate." She prays for God to "take care of making it a sound story." Her prayers contain words Christian writers can relate to.

While it was a very slim volume, it was a joy to read her words. Plus, I was thrilled with the presentation of her actual writing at the back of the book. It brought back memories of my time spent transcribing the words of C.S. Lewis. I will continue to pursue the writing of truly great writers and perhaps it will assist me in becoming a better writer. Perhaps, my own prayers for God to grant me words and a story worth telling will be answered one day.