Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Book Review: Saving Grace

The cover proclaims that Saving Grace is written by New York Times bestselling author, Jane Green. I had never heard the name before. Nor was I aware that this audio book, read by the author, would delight with a British accent and story (well, the setting is split between New England in the States and Dorset in Britain). I always enjoy a well-told story narrated with a British accent.

Grace Chapman has it all. Married to the fierce and successful writer, Ted Chapman, she is a well-known cook in her own right. Their only current difficulty is their need of an assistant/household manager. When their daughter, Clemmie, introduces them to Beth, Grace believes her prayers have been answered. Beth, with her take-charge personality, begins to whip things in shape and both Grace and Ted are impressed. But, slowly, things begin to unravel for Grace and she can't quite shake the feeling that Beth is at the root of it all. Running from her own personal demons, Grace must face things from the past and iron out things in the present.

If it weren't for the delightful narration, I would have preferred a hard-cover version of the book, since each chapter ended with a recipe. As it was, I did pause the audio to jot down the recipe for Pavlova (a dessert our Australian matron used to make when I worked at The Salvation Army's International College for Officers). Of course, not being much of a cook, I didn't hold out enough hope to write down any of the other recipes (and I might even bomb the Pavlova, but I do intend to take a stab at it). Although parts were a bit unbelievable (Grace can cook up intricate recipes for the masses, yet cannot keep her own checkbook and hands it over to Beth without thoroughly double-checking references?), I'd be willing to try another book from this author.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Book Review: When We Collided

I was enticed by the inside blurb: "In an unflinching story about new love, old wounds, and forces beyond our control, two teens find that when you collide with the right person at just the right time, it will change you forever." Romantic and alluring, no? Then there were the endorsements on the back: "This is more than a love story. When We Collided carefully yet effortlessly puts mental illness in conversation with the beauty and struggle of adolescence." - Julie Murphy (author of Dumplin') "Searingly honest, gut-wrenchingly authentic, and deeply romantic, When We Collided ... tackles tough topics with nuance and will make readers both laugh and cry." - Jasmine Warga

I loved that the story was told again, like in my last YA read dealing with a character with mental illness, in alternating chapters from two different character perspectives. Vivian, who is running from a past littered with the fall-out of her diagnosis, tells the female perspective of the budding romance. Jonah, who is dealing with stages of grief after the loss of his father and the subsequent abandonment of a mother dealing with her own grief, tells the story from an achingly raw perspective. Jonah needs Vivi as much as Vivi needs Jonah and the fact that they enter each other's lives at the just the right time is icing on the cake. Vivi is not afraid of darkness and Jonah desperately needs someone to brighten his world.

And just like my reaction from the last YA book, I keep wondering why YA authors find it necessary to paint the picture that all teenagers are having sex. These two characters have plenty on their plates already without adding the emotional baggage and intensity of a sexual relationship. Yet the author paints the picture that their sexual involvement is merely a side-note and no big deal, even though they end up going their separate ways at the end of the tale. For once I would like a YA book to honestly express the fall-out of such casual intercourse and the damage done by engaging in intimacy at that level with the flippancy of handing out a business card. Instead, readers are led to believe that such intimacy heals the wounds of the present and allows individuals to move on into other spheres more whole, instead of less. So, while there were, indeed, "raw, descriptive truths" (SLJ starred review) in the book, some of the truths rang questionable to my ears.

Moreover, I was troubled by the absence of reliable, supportive adults. While it is entirely realistic that a mother might drown in the grief of the loss of her spouse and might truly leave her children to fend for themselves, there could have been other adults playing a responsible role and intervening into Jonah's chaotic world or even Vivian's (absent self-involved mother and father). Yet, even the upstanding town sheriff offers shallow support ("deal with the cards life has dealt"). It would have been refreshing to see adults stepping up to the plate to assist these fragile adolescents.

Still, we do need novels like this one - novels that portray the reality of life with mental illness because plenty of young people are out there struggling with these illnesses. Moreover, we need to learn to handle such individuals with gentleness and kindness. We need to eliminate the social stigma. Having personal familiarity with the depth of clinical depression, I'm all for stories that highlight the medical challenges presented by such illnesses. I certainly hope teen readers who can relate to the personal battles of either Vivian or Jonah will not close the book without utilizing the resources the author has listed at the end.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Book Review: Highly Illogical Behavior

I read loads of young adult fiction because I attempt to write young adult fiction. But my book club only rarely selects a young adult title (once a year or less). John Corey Whaley's Highly Illogical Behavior was a good choice because it is an easy read (brief, with a compelling story and believable characters) and offers much to discuss (mental health, general attitudes toward individuals with mental health problems, ethical dilemmas connected to the characters' actions, and the universal longing for connection). I enjoyed it and I'm hoping the other members found some good in it as well.

Seventeen-year-old Lisa Praytor wants nothing more than to escape her hum-drum existence in Upland, California. She has set her heart on the second-best psychology program in the country and hopes to get in on a full scholarship through an essay contest offered by the program. But can she write a stellar essay that will put her head-and-shoulders above the competition? She thinks she can if she connects with and assists an individual with a mental health problem. Enter Solomon Reed.

Suffering from an intense panic disorder, Solomon had flipped out one day in middle school and submerged himself in the school's fountain in front of the on-lookers (including Lisa). Nobody ever heard about him again. The incident triggered a severe case of agoraphobia and his parents simply agreed to home-school him and alleviate his anxieties as best they could.

Lisa, together with her boyfriend, Clark, attempts to befriend Solomon and "fix" him so that he can feel safe in the world again. She doesn't expect what happens next: a genuine friendship between the three of them. At Solomon's house, Clark finally lets down his guard and feels comfortable and known in a way his athletic buddies, and even Lisa, can't provide. The closeness between Solomon and Clark threatens to undo his relationship with Lisa. Will their secret come out? Will Clark "come out"?

Things I liked: very endearing characters, intriguing plot-line, prominent contemporary issue, excellent writing, and plenty of discussion fodder. I did, indeed, fall in love with Lisa, Clark, and Solomon. I loved Solomon's parents and their approach to their son's issues. I loved Solomon's wise and spunky grandmother. I wondered whether Solomon would win them over or feel used at any point. I felt the portrayal of Solomon's illness was written with precision and handled with compassion. I appreciated the format of the novel, alternating between chapters from Solomon's perspective and chapters from Lisa's perspective. I even reveled in the name choices: Solomon (man going it alone), Praytor (preying on someone else), and Clark (Superman connotations). I enjoyed this read.

Things I struggled with: why, oh why, does society immediately jump to the conclusion that if a guy is unwilling to enter into a sexual relationship with a girl, he must be either a religious freak or gay? Are young men so devoid of true character that those are the only contingencies that would cause a teenage boy to stand firm in sexual boundaries? Thankfully, I think the author, while wanting to present these as options, did an okay job of portraying a character who is simply careful with his physical expressions of love. Still, it rankles that the premise of the story relies on society's current views of sexuality among teens: that everyone is doing it, that anyone remotely interested in another individual should be pursuing it, and that someone who doesn't must have a hang-up of some sort. I, for one, applaud Clark for being a character who senses the immanent distance between the two of them and decides not to engage in an activity that is meant to bond two individuals together for life.

I also struggled with Lisa's lack of conscience in the story. She only vaguely questioned her decision to use another individual for her own advantage. It was only the possibility of Clark's interest in Solomon that forced her to face her own selfish behavior in regard to Solomon. I guess I wanted to see her struggle more internally with her own behavior of treating someone as a means to an end. Still, at least her friends attempted to point out this lack of insight. In the end, I appreciated what remorse Lisa did express for her actions. I also appreciated the author's leaving the results of the essay contest up in the air. I was satisfied with the ending and glad to have read the book.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Book Review: Three Weeks in Paris

A couple of weeks ago, I finally stepped out to fulfill a writing goal and personal ambition. One of my young adult novels ends with two individuals leaving on a trip to London, Paris, and Rome. Because the novel ends with the possibility for a sequel, I've been skimming advertisements for such a trip whenever they come my way. I'm primarily a fan of London (and have always been an intense Anglophile), and have been to Paris, but I've never explored Rome.

When I chanced upon a Groupon for a London/Paris/Rome trip, I hesitantly called to see how much it would cost to fly out of Indianapolis instead of the New York departure plan. With the assurance that it would only be $17 more (but that this rate might, indeed, go up if I lingered over the decision), I jumped and purchased the deal. I am bound for London/Paris/Rome in November. Of course, on the spur of the moment, I didn't have time (or really any possible contenders) to convince someone else to join me (my husband loathes travel, so that simply wasn't an option).

I've never read anything by Barbara Taylor Bradford before, despite knowing of her rank as a bestselling author. When I stumbled upon this title, Three Weeks in Paris, I thought it would be a great way to begin to soak myself in the locations I will soon visit. Bradford earns the accolades. Her writing is full of interesting and believable characters, with plenty of intrigue and excellent plot development. I appreciated how this novel slowly show-cased each of the four main characters and drew out the details that, at first, nurtured their intense friendship and then managed to separate them. Each character has plenty of backstory and an element of suspense.

The four women return to Paris for a party celebrating the 85th birthday of their esteemed teacher, Anya. Alexa, recently engaged, wonders whether she should renew a relationship with a past love in Paris. Kay is struggling with infertility and a secretive past. She worries that her husband is so intent upon an heir that he will cast her aside. Jessica has long pined for her own love, a man who disappeared shortly before her graduation from Anya's school. Maria is tied to her family's business and eats to console herself. She is at the heart of the incident that sabotaged the friendship between the girls.

While I was swept quickly into the tales of these diverse lives, and did thoroughly enjoy the story, I was disappointed with a plethora of my own personal bookish cryptonite (as Sheila, from The Deliberate Reader, calls it). Call me a prude, but I cannot abide intensely descriptive love-making scenes in books. I don't need help conjuring up images and I would prefer those details to remain in my private imagination.

Moreover, I was distressed by the modern moral vacuum portrayed. Characters are in bed with one man one minute and within a short time, jump into bed with another. The final lines of the book demonstrate this shallow mindset of relationships. It proclaims, "Love - it's the only thing that really matters in the end." I fail to see the depth of love when characters so casually engage in intercourse. So, despite enjoying the Paris descriptions, the varied tales of each character, the resolution of many conflicts, and the engaging storytelling skill of the author, I could not recommend this to many of my friends (especially those who share my sentiments about the sanctity of marriage, the reverence for the private sacredness of the act of marriage, or the dislike of the bookish cryptonite of sexual voyeurism).

I listened to this book in audio form and was thankful that my young sons never entered the room during the seven or eight love scenes. I will say that the narrator, Barbara Rosenblat, did an outstanding job with the narration. She displayed superb skill in bringing these characters to life with separate accents and excellent interpretations. I would happily listen to her narration in another audio book, just probably not another one by this author.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Book Review: On the Edge of Gone

As I read the tagline to On the Edge of Gone, I knew it would be a suitable comparison title for my recent novel. It reads: "When the future of the human race is at stake, whose lives matter most?" The similarities are striking.

Denise, her mother, and her trans-gender sister Iris, have all been assigned to a temporary shelter to wait out the impact of an anticipated comet collision. This will provide meager comfort and security, at best. Their wildest dream is to be allowed to board one of the generation ships, bound for another planet to save mankind. But, there's a hitch. Everyone on board the ship must prove their usefulness. Denise is autistic. Her mother is a drug addict. Her sister's primary skill is planning and executing festivals, not much use on a ship looking for engineers and scientists.

The day the comet is due, Denise can't find her sister and her mother seems strung out and unwilling to move. Their luck picks up when they assist two women headed for one of the generation ships. Denise and her mother are offered temporary shelter in exchange for their assistance in transporting the women. Now, Denise must struggle to find her sister and secure permanent spots for them on the ship's manifest.

I am most impressed by the author's skillful rendering of the narrator. When your main character faces intense challenges, it can be quite difficult to sway the reader's affection. While I never came to love Denise, I certainly sympathized with her in her dilemmas. She has a tenacity that carries her through, despite her constant need to self-stimulate (frequent tapping on her legs) and disengage. It must have been quite tricky for the author to convey the challenges along with the strengths.

In the end, the reader is left thinking long and hard about the intrinsic value of each and every individual on the planet, whether they are autistic, addicted, or unproductive. The end doesn't wrap up with a rosy, neatly packaged resolution. It is realistic and yet hopeful.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Book Review: The Nature of Jade

I've been searching for comparison titles to use in my query letters to agents concerning my most recently written young adult novel. I hoped to find a novel highlighting an individual who struggles with some sort of anxiety disorder. Thus, I discovered The Nature of Jade by Deb Caletti.

Jade DeLuna suffers from panic attacks, but she doesn't want her issue to define her. So, she takes on a job working with the elephants at the zoo. Despite their enormous size, they serve as a calming influence in her life. That is how she ends up meeting the boy in the red jacket, a boy who brings his infant son to see the elephants. The boy looks too young to have a son and Jade is intrigued and desperate to meet him. As she secretly weaves her life into his (afraid others will warn her off of him because of his adult responsibilities), she discovers the truth of his own story and must confront a painful decision of whether to follow love on a complicated path or seek safety.

I'm not sure it is an adequate comparison title, so I will continue seeking similar ones, but it was a good read. The characters were believable and conflicted. The plot moved at an adequate pace. Moreover, I enjoyed the snippets about animal behavior that prefaced each chapter. While the novel was definitely different from my own, it shared some similarities in highlighting anxiety. For teens seeking a novel about individuals with panic disorder or teens interested in learning about elephant behavior, this would be a good fit.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Book Review: The Lose Your Belly Diet

If I had only seen the main title to this, without the subtitle, I may not have checked it out, but I'm fascinated with the idea of health stemming from the status of your gut. This book, The Lose Your Belly Diet: Change Your Gut, Change Your Life, provides all the arguments for improving your gut health found in the wonderful book, The Brain Maker, but also includes prescribed recipes. Like Dr. David Perlmutter's book, Dr. Travis Stork's book points to the importance of the microbiome for all aspects of health, mental as well as gastrointestinal. Moreover, Dr. Stork breaks it all down into easy analogies and accessible language.

As the inside cover proclaims, "This plan is built around a very clear, research-based concept: Eating food that nourishes and protects the microbiome in your gut paves the way for weight loss, a slimmer middle, and better overall health." Stork begins by explaining current research into the gut environment known as the "microbiome." He goes on to outline many things you can do to improve your gastrointestinal health (things like eating fruits, vegetables, and pre-and-probiotics, while avoiding c-sections, formula-feeding, unnecessary antibiotics, and hyper-sensitivity to germs and bacteria).

While none of this information was new to me (having read Perlmutter's excellent book), I was impressed with how accessible Stork managed to make it all. Moreover, he does provide actual weekly menu suggestions and recipes (although I wasn't enticed by many of them). If you are looking for a plan to improve your diet, you couldn't go wrong in turning to this book. And if you are interested in learning more about how your gut influences the rest of your bodily functions, this is a good place to start. I still enjoyed Perlmutter's book more, but this book certainly offers up practical steps and tangible guidance.