Saturday, October 14, 2017

Book Review: P.S. from Paris

With a lovely cover and a clear topic in preparation for my trip, I gratefully snapped up this novel, P.S. from Paris, by Marc Levy. It was a delightful light-hearted romance. I may have to reread it after visiting Paris, when perhaps the place names will stand out for me more. As it was, the only thing I recognized in the novel was Sacre Coeur.

Mia, otherwise known as the famous British actress Melissa Barlow, is fed up with her cheating co-star husband. Knowing that she faces many upcoming press events to promote their film, Mia runs away to Paris to visit her oldest friend, Daisy. Daisy is a respectable chef with her own restaurant near Sacre Coeur. Determined to linger there incognito for a while, Mia has her hair dyed and takes on another persona. While logging onto Daisy's computer to check her email, Mia happens upon a dating website and decides to skim the profiles of several men and create her own profile, as well.

Paul Barton is an American author living in Paris. His books are most popular in Korea and his agent is encouraging him to go there to make a television appearance and several book-signings. While his oldest friends are visiting him, they attempt to encourage him to go despite his great fear of flying. They also stumble upon the dating website and trick him into a blind date with one of the women. When Mia and Paul meet, they realize that they have met under less than ideal circumstances and hold no desire for romantic involvement. Thus, they agree to part as friends, with no commitment to any further contact. Yet, the heavens conspire against them and they find their friendship blossoming as they continue to make allowances for repeated contact, saying it "doesn't really count" as anything romantic.

Romance seems inevitable in the "City of Love." If you are looking for a breezy romance set in Paris, this would be the perfect prescription. Since my upcoming trip is partially research for my November novel attempt, I have to decide whether my main character is looking for love in Paris on her trip there. I'll have to walk the streets with an open mind to such possibilities. Too bad it won't be possible to replicate the roof-top view Mia enjoys atop the Paris Opera House. Now that would be a great follow-up experience to reading this book!

Monday, October 9, 2017

Book Review: See You in the Cosmos - Highly Recommend

What a magical, touching book! I think Allie Condie's endorsement of See You in the Cosmos sums up my sentiments the best: "Alex Petroski has a big mind, big dreams, and a big heart. His story is full of the real kind of magic - friends well-met, surprising journeys, and heartbreak and hope. This is a beautiful book." I concur enthusiastically! I was swept away so thoroughly that I lost track of time and forgot to pick my son up from football practice. My heart was tugged and I pondered anew the gift of relationships.

Eleven-year-old Alex Petroski has one goal on his mind. He wants to communicate with whatever other life forms are out there. He intends to accomplish this feat by launching a golden i-pod into space on a rocket. The i-pod contains 52 separate recordings filled with the sounds he has collected to represent life on earth and the accompanying narrations of his own daily life. Alex even has the perfect occasion in mind - a rocket-launching festival, where he can meet his on-line friends from Rocketforum.org. He's prepared enough meals to care for his widowed, emotionally-troubled mother in his absence and has purchased a train ticket, but the train officials insist he must be accompanied by a grown-up in order to travel. Thankfully, an older boy steps in and claims to be his brother (Alex does have an older brother, but he lives in Los Angeles and works as a sports agent). Once Alex and his dog are safely on the train bound for the festival, he meets other rocket enthusiasts and his true journey really begins, a journey of self-discovery, full of new information, obstacles, and long-held secrets. Alex must reach deep within to find the courage to face the answers to his questions about his role in his family and his place in the universe.

I can just imagine the intensely captivated response youngsters would give to this book as a classroom read-aloud. I remember the enthusiasm of the third graders in Ms. McKee's classroom, whenever she would announce that it was time for more of Kate DiCamillo's The Tale of Despereaux. Filled with such intense emotional truth, readers could not help but be similarly enthralled with See You in the Cosmos. Alex's innocence and curiosity shine through as he navigates a difficult world and attempts to leave his mark.

Author Jack Cheng has struck gold with his first book for young readers. It was interesting to note, in his acknowledgments, that he started out his journey to publication by seeking funds for his first novel through Kickstarter (for more on his journey to publication, you can go here to listen to a number of podcasts describing the process). I, too, am grateful for the individuals who backed this talented young writer and the agent who discovered his Kickstarter campaign. The world needs more books like this, books that not only affirm life, but - like a rocket - sweep you up and gently drop you down in wonder at the privilege of human existence and the power of human love.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Book Review: The Rejected Writers' Book Club

I can't remember where I saw this book mentioned, but I made a mental note of the intriguing title, The Rejected Writers' Book Club. I suppose you could say I could relate, having received my fair share of rejection letters, from outright "this is just not for me" to "we wish we could publish your book, but we only publish two YA books per year and our quota is already full." It sounded like a book sure to appeal to would-be-writers.

Despite the awesome title and splendid cover, I didn't really enjoy it. I thought it was ridiculous and far-fetched, a sort of comedy of errors based on a highly unlikely premise. The Rejected Writers' Book Club members are thrown into a tizzy when one member receives, horror of horrors, an acceptance letter, thus ruining their lengthy streak of some 475 rejections in a row. Instead of elation, the would-be-author is horrified and goes to great lengths to retrieve the manuscript and secure the highly-sought-after rejection letter she believes her manuscript deserves. The ensuing adventure, despite moments of levity, pushed the envelope into the outlandish category.

The writing was sound enough, but the characters were caricatures. The club enlists the assistance of a local librarian, who looks on in amusement at their antics and eccentricities. Their road trip includes the predictable elements of young love, haunted houses, obstacles, and crazy encounters. The women manage to win over every stranger through the blessings of their cooking skills. In the end, the librarian joins their ranks, won over by the thrill of receiving her own rejection - really? Although it was a light-hearted, easy read, it was simply too absurd for my tastes. For those in the market for a ridiculous romp of a read, the author has written two more in the series (all available on Kindle for less than two bucks). I'm afraid, I'm not up for the ride.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Book Review: Black Rabbit Hall - Highly Recommend

After abandoning my previous audio book (Wired by Julie Garwood - sadly, I was already half-way through before I simply gave up because of the trashiness of it), I was absolutely thrilled with the fare of Black Rabbit Hall by Eve Chase. This was an outstanding audio experience. I was riveted and entranced throughout the telling. As Book Page proclaimed, "For fans of Kate Morton and Daphne du Maurier, Black Rabbit Hall, is an obvious must-read, but it is sure to please any reader who delights in devilishly thrilling dramas...."

Lorna Dunaway cannot help but be pulled back to the Cornish countryside when searching for a venue for her upcoming wedding. She has fond memories of exploring a particular old country estate, called Black Rabbit Hall, with her mother in her younger days. Sadly, the house has decayed quite a bit over the years and may not be a suitable choice, in the eyes of her fiance John. Still, when the owner invites her to spend a few days there, she gives into the magnetic force.

As she explores the grounds, she comes across markings on a tree indicating the untimely death of a young boy. Curious to know more, she probes the owner for more background history, unaware that she is unearthing personal truths she may not be ready to face. As Caroline Alton outlines the history of the house and the family, Lorna is both undone and reborn.

While I guessed the ending long before it played out, it was still a delicious journey. I loved the narrator's accent, the English environment, the mystery and intrigue, and the characterization. I enjoyed it enough to want to listen to it all over again, and just might, if I cannot find another suitable audio book to listen to while I walk.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Book Review: Lighthouse Faith

The enticing cover of this book hooked me. I found the subtitle compelling: Lighthouse Faith: God as a Living Reality in a World Immersed in Fog. I was drawn to the beauty of the image, an attractive photo of the author, a one time Miss Minnesota and third runner up for Miss America. When I began to skim and my eye happened upon a reference to Oliver Sacks, my desire to read the book increased even more. But, the content is what really causes me to recommend this book.

Author Lauren Green, a religion correspondent for Fox News, has had the opportunity to meet and interview many interesting people. I appreciated the intellectual tone of the book and enjoyed reading about various individuals who helped shape Green's arguments for the importance of faith in a muddled world. Using a lighthouse metaphor, Green draws a parallel from the lighthouse to the structure of the Ten Commandments, God's holy law and a fitting primer for effective living. The first commandment is key, just like the beam of light dispelling darkness and assisting navigation: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me." All other commandments hold up the first and foremost one. Man was created with a God-shaped hole. We were made for worship, but if we are not worshiping God, then we will certainly be worshiping something else in His stead. It might be success, wealth, the approval of others, or any number of other idols that take the place of God.

I loved the question posed on the back cover: "Is God simply an accessory that we carry with us?" Basically, the author is asking us to delve internally and discover what foundation we are building on. This is a book with equal appeal to both Christians and non-Christians. For those who have scorned religion, it opens up arguments for the existence of God and the perfection of His plans and purposes. For those who already believe, it challenges faith to become real and dynamic, a light in a darkened world. With passages exploring things like music, epigenetics, mathematics, and architecture, alongside things like theology, sacrifice, covenant, and worship, Green causes the reader to think deeply. Indeed, the book contains a fascinating appendix: "A Small Lesson in Music History and a Harmonic Analysis of the 'Hallelujah Chorus'" - sure to appeal to musically inclined readers.

Green argues against "facades of faith" that "mask the temple to a false god within." No one would dispute the presence of evil in the world today, but are we acknowledging that God's light alone illuminates through the darkness and are we structuring our lives on that foundation? The light is there, if we're willing to use it as a guide in the storm.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Book Review: Sisterchicks Go Brit!

I fondly remember my mother telling me she had found another good writer of Christian inspirational novels - Robin Jones Gunn. How I loved hearing her recommendations! It is so sad that she no longer reads books, or even my blog, due to her dementia. My dad says that she tries, but just cannot retain enough to stick with it. So, as I read Sisterchicks Go Brit!, I not only thought of my upcoming trip to London, but also thought about how my mother and I would have discussed this book, if I had read it a few years back.

Overall, I enjoyed the story and the travelogue feel to the novel. Since I studied at Oxford with the Wheaton-in-England program the summer of 1985, and worked for six months in London on a student-work visa in 1987, I was lucky enough to have experienced quite a few of the tourist activities outlined in the novel. The only thing I didn't attempt (nor will I ever, probably) was a hot-air balloon ride.

This is certainly not a plot-driven story. It primarily introduced two women who have a wish fulfilled when they are given tickets to travel to London, escorting an elderly neighbor back to her home in Olney. Liz and Kellie, who teasingly call themselves Lady Ebb and Lady Flo (for their intention to go with the flow of whatever transpires during their trip), are contemplating going into an interior design business together. Liz's love of British literature shines through and Kellie's appreciation of patterns and designs carry much of the side-story, but the pace and intention of the plot didn't really entice all that much. Throughout the story, the two are drawn closer to the Lord (after all, it is a Christian novel, and I guess that is to be expected) and enjoy a time of blessing throughout their travels.

As someone intending to depart on an upcoming trip to London, it was a fun read. It is sure to appeal to Christian women who experience wanderlust of any sort, and especially those who, like Liz, dream of seeing Big Ben. I can think of one friend, in particular, I should recommend it to, because this Christian friend absolutely loves travel and has recently started her own travel agency. I could imagine an agent offering a tour that lives out the experiences of Sisterchicks Go Brit! - a Sisterchicks Go Brit tour, so to speak.

I hate to fault the book for my common complaint with Christian fiction (the message feels forced into the story, instead of the story carrying the message), but the spiritual applications did, indeed, feel intrusive at times. It was as if the author wrote of a friendly girlfriend trip across the pond, but needed to add layers of Christian observations so it would appeal to the intended market. Having recently attempted to write my own inspirational novel, I can appreciate how difficult it is to avoid allowing the spiritual observations to overshadow the strength of story. Nonetheless, I can see why this author appealed to my mother, and I would still be willing to read another of her books. I'll have to check out the Paris excursion Sisterchick novel called Sisterchicks Say Oo La La!

Friday, September 22, 2017

Book Review: The Skeleton Crew

This was a book for my book club. I had to request it by interlibrary loan since none of the nearby libraries carried it. My interest was definitely piqued by the subtitle, The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths are Solving America's Coldest Cases. It was an intriguing, if a bit gory, read.

Hard to imagine, but there are over forty thousand unidentified dead bodies in America. Even when the bodies carry interesting clues, like dental work and tattoos, it can be hard for the police to identify the person. Oftentimes, the cases merely go cold because funds cannot really be spent to dig into the complex puzzle of identification. Enter a weird kind of common man, who enjoys puzzles and surfs the Internet for clues that might solve the mysteries behind these often faceless individuals. Criminals sometimes go to desperate lengths to obscure the pertinent clues like fingerprints, cutting off hands and bashing in faces. Or, the elements often deteriorate the condition of the body to the point where it is unrecognizable.

Deborah Halber descends into this gruesome world of facial reconstructions, autopsies, and arm-chair sleuthing. She outlines several cases, both solved and unsolved. She highlights the eccentric individuals who come home from their day jobs, fire up their computers, and seek to match missing person bulletins to the details of unidentified corpses. While I don't think I'll take her advice, and seek out the websites often used, I did find the various stories interesting. My only complaint would be that the writing occasionally felt disjointed and jumbled. Indeed, everyone in my book club expressed the same observation, even to the point of agreement that this probably isn't the most well-written book on the subject of amateur sleuthing. Still, it would probably appeal to readers who are interested in true crime stories and who root for the underdog to answer questions the authorities don't have time, money, or energy to pursue. Just don't expect an in-depth explanation of how to go about solving these troublesome mysteries.